Saturday, November 26, 2016


The Hebrew word for "prophet" - נביא navi has a surprising number of suggested etymologies. Let's take a look at some of them.

Klein gives the following etymology for navi:

Probably derived from the base נבא (= to call, proclaim); accordingly the original meaning of navi probably was 'the man who calls or proclaims'.

He then has this entry for the root נבא:

Akkadian nabu (=to call, announce, proclaim), Arabic naba'a (= he uttered with a low voice, announced), naba' (= announcement, information), nab'ah (=a low sound).

This article by Daniel E. Fleming quotes Albright as saying that navi

is a noun from a passive form of the Semitic root nb', "to call"... The prophet is therefore "one called" by God.

In the end, he prefers this theory:

The Syrian nabu is best understood as one who invokes the gods, and the noun should be an active participle from the verb nabu, "to name." ... the Hebrew nabi is best explained by the same etymology.

The Ben Yehuda dictionary says that the Arabic verb meaning "to announce, inform," had the sense of someone walking from land to land, and perhaps this sense of walking from place to place was the original meaning, since these kinds of travelers would be the ones to inform.

The same source also suggest another theory, which connects it to a different Arabic root meaning to "wake from sleep", in which someone's heart is suddenly awake with the need to speak about something.

Returning to the Akkadian connection, the Akkadian dictionary has the following entry for nabu:

G. to name (+2 acc.) ; to invoke (a god) ; to nominate ; to decree, ordain D. to lament, wail Š. to cause to proclaim N. to be named ; to be appointed, called upon

This last sense, "to be appointed", calls to mind a suggested etymology by my friend Michael Gerver. He wrote:

Although I have not seen this suggested anywhere, it seems possible that Arabic nawaba, “represent,” “substitute,” is related to Hebrew נוב, “speak,” if the Arabic word originally meant “speak for.” Arabic nawaba is the source of Arabic na’ib, “viceroy,” whose plural nuwab is the source, via Hindi or Urdu, of English nabob

Even if nawaba doesn't mean "to speak for", it could still be connected to nabob via the Akkadian "appoint". Here is the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for nabob:

1610s, "deputy governor in Mogul Empire," Anglo-Indian, from Hindi nabab, from Arabic nuwwab, honorific plural of na'ib "viceroy, deputy," from base n-w-b "to take someone's place." Also used of Europeans who came home from India having made a fortune there, hence "very rich man" (1764).

I also have no proof of this (although as always, I welcome help from readers), but I relish the opportunity to discuss nabob (which can mean "important person" in addition to "rich man"), as it was used so masterfully by my inspiration for this blog, William Safire. When Safire was a White House speechwriter in 1970, he wrote a speech for Vice President Spiro Agnew that used the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism." It is one of the most famous quotes associated with both Agnew and Safire.

I've always loved the phrase - but until now, had no idea that nabob could be perhaps related to navi...

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Last week we discussed how mistorin מסתורין is a Talmudic era "blend" of a Hebrew root and a Greek word. A more recent blend is the word gaon גאון. Let's take a look.

In Biblical Hebrew, gaon has a few different meanings - "glory, majesty", "pride, haughtiness" and "rising of the waters, tides." All of these meanings show a connection to the source of gaon - the root גאה, which means "to rise up, be proud", and is also the source of the word for pride - גאוה ga'ava.

The word is used in Nachum 2:3 (as well as Tehilim 47:5) in the positive sense of "pride":

כִּ֣י שָׁ֤ב ה' אֶת־גְּא֣וֹן יַעֲקֹ֔ב כִּגְא֖וֹן יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
"For the LORD has restored the Pride of Jacob, as well as the Pride of Israel"

Gaon Yaakov - "Pride of Jacob" was adopted as the name of a post Talmudic Babylonian yeshiva, and the head of that yeshiva, whose official title was Rosh Yeshivat Gaon Yaakov, was abbreviated to "Gaon". During this period the most important rabbinical leaders were known as geonim, some of the famous including Amram Gaon and Saadia Gaon.

The period of the Geonim ended around 1000 CE, but the title of gaon was continued to be used to describe individuals who had mastered the Torah. Such usage can be found in the poetry of Ibn Ezra and others, and perhaps most famously it was used to describe the 18th century rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna - the Vilna Gaon.

The blend I mentioned above occurred later. Gaon sounds similar to the word "genius" in many foreign languages. In addition to English, we find the German and French genie, Russian гений (geniy), and Yiddish zheni. So in Modern Hebrew gaon came to refer to a genius - indicating inherent intellectual ability, and not just proficiency in the study of Torah.

Within Modern Hebrew the adjective geoni גאוני - "ingenious" developed as well. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether or not this post fits that description!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

seter and setira

The words seter סתר -"hideaway; secret" and setira  סתירה - "contradiction", seem to have the same root - סתר. However, they are not related.

The verb סתר meaning "to hide, conceal", most commonly found in the hifil form - histir הסתיר - "he hid", is found in Biblical Hebrew and has cognates in other Semitic languages such as Ugaritic, Aramaic and Arabic.

Setira, however, derives from a homographic root סתר, which originally meant "to pull down, destroy", and that sense was expanded to mean "contradict, refute." Both these uses are found in Rabbinic Hebrew, but not in Biblical Hebrew. What we do find in Biblical Hebrew, in one verse, is the form שתר (Shmuel I 5:9). where it means something like "break out, burst."

We can see from the Arabic cognates that these are two different roots - the root meaning "hide" is cognate with the Arabic satara, whereas the root meaning "tear down" has a cognate in the Arabic shatara.

While one might assume a connection between seter and the English word "mystery", the latter has an unrelated etymology:

from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere "secret, mystery, hidden meaning" (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium "secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing," from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) "secret rite or doctrine," from mystes "one who has been initiated," from myein "to close, shut" (see mute (adj.)); perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).

That said, Klein does write that the Hebrew word mistorin מסתורין - "mystery", is a "blend" of מסתור mistor (a biblical word meaning "hiding place, shelter") and Greek mysterion. What's interesting about this blend is that it is found already in Rabbinic Hebrew  (where it is also spelled מסטורין, showing more Greek influence). I was more familiar with these blends in Modern Hebrew, such as עלית elit - blending the Hebrew עלי ili- "upper" and the French "elite."

So while I might have torn down any ideas you had connecting the roots, at least it is a hidden mystery no more...