Sunday, March 27, 2016


The word "frank" (or its cognates) is an interesting one. All over the world, it refers to Westerners (as viewed by locals), but in Israeli slang, it's a derogatory term for Sephardic / Mizrahi Jews (as used by Ashkenazim). How did this happen?

According to this Philologos post, and this Language Hat post, the French were the ones leading the initial Crusades, and so they became known as the standard European foreigner. Philologos mentions the following cognates in many languages - all over the world:

Greek frangos, “Westerner”; Turkish frenk, “European” (frengi in Turkish means syphilis, for which the Turks had Europe to thank); Syriac frang, “European”; Persian ferang, ditto; Amharic frenj, “White Man”; southern Indian farangi or pirangi, “European” or “White Man”; Thai farang, ditto; Cambodian barang, ditto; Vietnamese pha-lang-xa, ditto; Malaysian ferringi, ditto; Indonesian barang, goods sold by a foreign trader; Samoan papalangi, “foreigner.” (Other derivations for papalangi, however, also have been given.)

In fact, the name might even extend beyond our planet. He mentions the Ferengi of Star Trek, whose name might have the same source. (We've seen Star Trek here before).

In Hebrew slang, the term franji פרנג'י means "to dress fancily, in a European style". But this phrase  is not in common use today (in fact, I'm not sure if I've ever heard it myself). However, the pejorative frank (actually better spelled frenk), which sometimes in Hebrew is still spelled in the Yiddish style פרענק instead of the Hebrew פרנק, is still heard (if not in polite company).

Why in this case are the Ashkenazi westerners calling the "local" Sephardim by this term? Ruvik Rosenthal writes here that the usage derives from the Spanish word "Francos", which had the same meaning we've seen before - Western Europeans as viewed by people in the East. In this case it referred to Sephardic Jews who migrated to the land of Israel from Spain and the Balkans. The local Jews referred to them as Europeans, and when the Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to Israel, they referred to all Sephardim as "frenks" - and the sense became much more insulting.

A different form of the root פרנק, which is much more positive, but unrelated to the modern use is found in the midrash. For example in Midrash Tanaim on Devarim 32:2 it says that the words of Torah are מעדנים  and מפרנקים - "refreshing" and "pampering". However this root is simply an expansion of the root פנק - also meaning "to spoil, pamper", and the Midrash Sifrei on the same verse uses מפנקים instead of מפרנקים. The root פנק appears once in the Bible, in Mishlei 29:21 - מְפַנֵּק מִנֹּעַר עַבְדּוֹ  - "a slave pampered from youth". In Modern Hebrew we see the word pinuk פינוק with both the positive connotation of "pampering" and the negative connotation of "spoiling". Like with the previous meaning, what can be fancy and pleasant to some, can be overindulgent and arrogant to others...

Monday, March 21, 2016


I recently discovered that the English word "artichoke" has a Semitic origin:

1530s, from articiocco, Northern Italian variant of Italian arcicioffo, from Old Spanish alcarchofa, from Arabic al-hursufa "artichoke."

Other sites give the original Arabic as al-karsufa, al-haršuf, or from the OED, a combination:

Italian regional (northern) articiocco (16th cent.), apparently < Spanish alcarchofa (1492; now usually alcachofa ) or its etymon Spanish Arabic al-ḵaršūfa < al- the + ḵaršūfa , regional variant (also ḵaršafa , ḵuršūfa ) of classical Arabic ḥaršafa (compare modern standard Arabic ḵuršūfa ), singular form corresponding to ḥaršaf , collective noun (compare modern standard Arabic ḵuršūf ), further etymology unknown.

Despite the ominous "further etymology unknown", I got curious - could there be a connection to a Hebrew word?

First of all, I should point out that the Jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with Jerusalem. It gets its name from an alteration of the Italian girasole, meaning sunflower. (They are also called "sunchokes" - which is my preferred name for them.)

But what about the "original" artichoke? They do appear in Jewish tradition - potentially very far back. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God cursed them saying they would eat "thorns and thistles" קוֹץ וְדַרְדַּר - kotz and dardar. The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 20:10) identifies them with kinras קינרס and akavit עכבית, but isn't sure which Biblical word matches with which Talmudic one. The gemara in Beitza (34a) points out that they both require effort before they are edible, and Rashi on the verse in Bereshit explains that this is the nature of the curse.

Kinras is cognate with the Latin word cynara - the name of the genus, and the Greek kynára, which may be named for the island Kinaros, or maybe the island is named for the plant. Avshalom Kor here proposes an interesting theory that the Kinneret lake may be named for the artichokes that grew on its shore, and that the Greeks actually borrowed a Semitic word, כינר kinar, that was later reintroduced to Hebrew in Talmudic times as kinras.   .Kinras and akavit refer to artichokes and the related cardoon, both of which do require significant preparation to eat. In fact, the Rambam in his commentary on the Mishna (Uktzin 1:6), which mentions kinras (in some versions as kunras קונרס and even as kundas קונדס, but that seems to be a typographical error), gives the Arabic version as אלחרשף, and says that in the west, it is known as אלכ'רשף. These match up with the etymologies we saw above for artichoke.

In Modern Hebrew the official word for artichoke is churshaf (or charshof) חרשף (derived from the Arabic, and coined in the Middle Ages), but I've only seen "artichoke" ארטישוק used.

So while we can trace the concept of artichoke back to earlier periods, we still haven't answered my question about any Semitic cognates to harsaf. I have a possible lead, but I'm really not sure - and I welcome your input.

The Arabic Etymological Dictionary has the following entry:
hharshaf : fish scales [Akk arsuppu (carp)] Per charshaf borrowed from Ara

The Concise Dictionary of Akkadian has a similar entry, saying the Akkadian arsuppu and ersuppu can mean carp or carp scales, einkorn (wheat) or a kind of apple. (You can see the full entry here, but I couldn't find anything more helpful).

So could the original word refer to an item with scales or thorns? Both of those could apply to the artichoke.

And if that's the case - could this also be the origin of a Hebrew word - kartzef קרצף - "to scrape or scratch"?  Klein says that it's related to an Aramaic root with the same spelling, but the ultimate etymology is unknown.

And here's where it gets a little strange. There's a kind of thistle, the "blessed thistle", known in Hebrew as a kartzaf mevorach קרצף מבורך. I haven't been able to find out where or how this term entered Hebrew (in fact, it's not in any of my dictionaries). But perhaps this too makes a connection between kartzaf and artichoke?

And one more possible theory. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following origin of cardoon:

1610s, from French cardon, from Provençal cardon, properly "thistle," from Late latin cardonem (nominative cardo "thistle," related to Latin carduus "thistle, artichoke"

And then going further back, in the entry for "harsh":

originally of texture, "hairy," 1530s, probably from Middle English harske "rough, coarse, sour" (c. 1300), a northern word of Scandinavian origin (compare Danish and Norwegian harsk "rancid, rank"), related to Middle Low German harsch "rough, raw," German harst "a rake;" perhaps from PIE root *kars- "to scrape, scratch, rub, card" (cognates: Lithuanian karsiu "to comb," Old Church Slavonic krasta, Russian korosta "to itch," Latin carduus "thistle," Sanskrit kasati "rubs, scratches").

So could this Indo-European root, *kars be related to kartzaf, which shares a meaning and a similar sound - and could either or both of them be related to the Arabic and Akkadian words we've found?

What do you all think?

Sunday, March 13, 2016


I realized that in my recent post on atar and asher, I left out an interesting cognate. I quoted Klein's etymology for the word osher אושר - "happiness":

Perhaps related to Ugaritic ushr (= happiness), Arabic yasara (= was easy), yassara ( =made easy, prospered)

The English word "hazard" may well derive from that same Arabic yasara. How so?

Klein himself does not make the connection. In his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, he has the following entry for "hazard":
1) a game played with dice; 2) chance; 3) risk. Old French (= French) hasard, from Spanish azar, 'unfortunate throw at dice, unforeseen accident', usually derived from Arabic al-zahr (pronounced az-zahr), 'the die'. This derivation is rightly doubted by most lexicographers (see e.g. Devic's Supplement to Littre's Dictionnaire de la langue francaise, s.v. hasard, and Skeat's Etymological Dictionary, s.v. hazard), owing to the fact that the word zahr does not occur in the dictionaries of Classical Arabic. According to my opinion Spanish azar derives from Arabic yasara, 'he played at dice'; z is the regular Spanish equivalent of Arabic s. The d in Old French hasard (whence English hazard) is due to a confusion of the ending -ar with suffix -ard.

So we see here that the Arabic word yasara can mean both "was easy" (or prospered) and "played at dice." What possible connection could there be between the two?

In the book Frequently Asked Questions in Islamic Finance, they make the following suggestion, while discussing the cognate game "maisir":
Yasara: affluence because maisir brings about profit;
Yusr: convenience, ease. Maisir is so termed because it is a means of making money without toil and exertion

(For further discussion of the Arabic root, see this post).

So we have an interesting development here. In Arabic, the games of dice and maisir were associated with ease - the element of chance provided an easy way of making money (and the echo of the Hebrew word osher can still be heard). But when the word entered European languages, it took a darker turn. Hazard went from a game of chance, to chance in general, to specifically a chance of harm or risk. I guess it all depends on how the die falls...

Sunday, March 06, 2016

maudlin and armageddon

The English word "maudlin" ultimately has a Hebrew origin. From The Online Etymology Dictionary's entry for maudlin:

c. 1600, "tearful," from Middle English fem. proper name Maudelen (early 14c.), from Magdalene (Old French Madelaine), woman's name, originally surname of Mary the repentant sinner forgiven by Jesus in Luke vii:37. In paintings, she often was shown weeping as a sign of repentance. Meaning "characterized by tearful sentimentality" is recorded by 1630s
And here is their entry for Magdalene:

fem. proper name, from Latin (Maria) Magdalena, from Greek Magdalene, literally "woman of Magdala," from Aramaic Maghdela, place on the Sea of Galilee, literally "tower."

Magdala was the name of a number of places in the Second Temple period (mentioned in both Jewish and Christian sources.) Later an Arab village, al-Majdal, preserved the name of Magdala, and in 1910, once again a Jewish town, in the same area, took up the name - Migdal.

The Aramaic Maghdela is cognate with the Hebrew migdal מגדל - "tower", and derives from the root גדל, meaning "great, large, tall", as in the word gadol גדול - "big".  There is another meaning of גדל - "twist, plait", and from here we get the synonym for tzitzit - gedilim גדילים in Devarim 22:12. Klein says they might be related, since twisting a cord makes it strong, i.e. great.

A different theory, mentioned in this entry in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, says that the two meanings of גדל are not related, and in fact, suggests that migdal actually derives from degel דגל (originally meaning "to look"):

The natural identification of the word migdal as a miqtal construction from a root gdl is problematical because only Canaanite attests the root gdl in the meaning "be large, high" (cf. in contrast Arab. gadala, "twist or pull tightly, plait"), and because the context of several OT occurences (e..g Isa 5:2) does not suggest something large and high. Thus there is some reason to follow the suggest first articulated by William F. Albright that the word migdal arose through metathesis from midgal (cf. Akk. madgaltu, "watchtower, border post").

The same entry mentions that the word migdal (or migdol) was so frequent in place names in the region, that Herodotus (Histories 2:159) mistakenly describes the famous biblical Battle of Megiddo as taking place in Magdolus. The Christian Book of Revelation describes a future battle to take place at Har Megiddo - which in Greek became Armageddon.  Eventually, Armageddon took on the meaning of "a final conflict" or "the end of the world."

Zev Vilnay writes here that the place name Megiddo מגידו likely has the following origin: מגדו — מקום גדודים - "Megido - a place of troops (gedudim)". Others connect it to the word meged  מגד - "bounty" (of food).

So from the sad maudlin and the scary Armageddon, if we dig a little further, we find greatness and bounty. The optimism of etymology!

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

apikoros and hefker

What is the origin of the word apikoros (or apikorus / epikoros ) אפיקורוס, meaning "heretic"? It refers to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and his school of thought, Epicureanism. While many ideas in Greek philosophy were in conflict with the views of Rabbinic Judaism, the Epicurean ideas, which denied eternity of the soul and the existence of God (or at least gods that were involved with what happens on earth), were particularly abhorrent to the rabbis of the post-Biblical period. So Epicurus for them became a prototype of all heretics and atheists. We find the words epicure and epicurean in English as well, meaning "pleasure loving", and particularly associated with a love of good food. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following entry:

late 14c., "follower of Epicurus," from Latinized form of Greek Epicouros (341-270 B.C.E.), Athenian philosopher who taught that pleasure is the highest good and identified virtue as the greatest pleasure; the first lesson recalled, the second forgotten, and the name used pejoratively for "one who gives himself up to sensual pleasure" (1560s), especially "glutton, sybarite" (1774). Epicurus's school was opposed by the stoics, who first gave his name a reproachful sense. Non-pejorative meaning "one who cultivates refined taste in food and drink" is from 1580s.

This is the widely accepted etymology for apikorus (more on the connection to Epicurus in this Philologos column).

The Rambam, however, in his commentary to the Mishna (Sanhedrin 10:1), gives a different etymology. Based on Talmudic sources (such as Sanhedrin 38b), he says it comes from the root פקר, meaning "to abandon" (found in the word hefker הפקר - "abandoned"). He wrote this commentary early in life, and it appears that perhaps that at the time he was not familiar with the Greek philosopher. However, much later in life, when he wrote The Guide for the Perplexed, he mentions Epicurus by name a number of times (1:73, 2:13, 3:17). So one theory is that maybe he would have reconsidered his original etymology after his subsequent exposure to philosophic sources.

However, a connection between apikoros and hefker may likely exist - just in the other direction. The root פקר is not found in Biblical Hebrew, first appearing in Talmudic sources. Scholars have a number of theories as to the origin of this root, and Ben Yehuda writes in his dictionary that it might not be just one source, but rather multiple influences. (For an extensive discussion of the various theories, see this Hebrew article by Prof. Shamma Friedman, with an English summary at the end.)

One theory is that this might be a metathesis of the root פרק, meaning "to break up, divide, tear away" (for example in the word perek פרק, as we discussed here). Klein quotes the phrase "parak ol torah" פרק על תורה - "he threw off the yoke of the Torah" for comparison.

Another possibility is that the earlier form of the word was the similar sounding hevker הבקר, and this is found in a number of locations in the Mishna (e.g. Peah 6:1). The Ramban, in his commentary to Shemot 15:10 and Vayikra 19:20 notes this as well, also saying that the בקר root preceded the פקר one.

Within this approach, there are a number of suggestions to what the word originally meant. According to Tur-Sinai's note in Ben Yehuda's dictionary, hevker is related to bakar בקר - "cattle", and was so called because cattle would graze in abandoned or ownerless land, or as Friedman speculates, this goes back to a general association between cattle and property, as we saw hereSpieser is quoted in Friedman's article as saying that the origin may be an Akkadian root, baqarum, meaning "to restore property to its owner", which eventually extended to the sense of "relinquish property" in general. And Friedman himself points out that the related roots בקר/בקע/פקר/פקע all mean "to burst", which came to indicate transfer of something from one domain to another (Bialik expands on this idea here).

All of these approaches might help explain a word that only appears once in the Tanach - bikoret בִּקֹּרֶת (Vayikra 19:20). Levine, in his JPS commentary on Vayikra, translates the word as "indemnity" and writes that:
It is  probably cognate with the Akkadian verb baqaru, "to make good on a claim, to indemnify." Biblical bikkoret is therefore related to mishnaic hevker, "property over which one has relinquished his claim." In our verse, the term bikkoret designates the actual payment imposed on the responsible party.

(For a further discussion of bikoret in that verse, see this post).

A final theory connects hefker to apikoros, claiming that the latter influenced the former - meaning a heretic who abandoned his religion.

At this point I'm not sure what to believe. The various theories are hefker - you can take whatever you like. And luckily you don't need to worry about being called an apikorus if you believe the wrong one...