Sunday, October 21, 2018


A podcast I enjoy, The History of English Podcast, had an episode a while back called "The Lion Kings" where the host discussed the etymologies of animals that were exotic to medieval England. One of them was the elephant, which is discussed in minutes 31-36 of that episode.

The host presented a theory that I had always kind of assumed, but never saw written down anywhere. That theory says that the word ultimately derives from the Hebrew elef אלף - "ox" (which I discussed in my post on the letter alef) - or from some Semitic cognate. They are both big mammals, so I assumed that it would be easy for the word to transfer from one to another.

But again, I never saw it anywhere before listening to the podcast. The theories that I had always seen were closer to the one proposed by Klein, in both his Hebrew and English etymological dictionaries, which I'll share with you now.

First of all, it's generally agreed that the English word "elephant" derives from the Greek, as described here:

c. 1300, olyfaunt, from Old French olifant (12c., Modern French éléphant), from Latin elephantus, from Greek elephas (genitive elephantos) "elephant; ivory"

Klein breaks down elephas into two parts. Regarding the first part, "el" he writes that it:

appears also in Hamitic elu, 'elephant', whence probably Persian p-il, Arabic ph-il, Mishnaic Hebrew p-il of same meaning.

In his entry for the Hebrew pil פיל, he adds the Akkadian cognates piru and pilu, and says that elu became pilu due to the Egyptian article "p-" (which according to this article means "the".)

Klein writes that the second component, ephas, is an Egyptian loan word. He adds that it is related to the Middle Egyptian word yb, "elephant", from where the name Yebu (the original name of the Egyptian island Elephantine) derives. This name appears in the Hebrew word for ivory, shenhav שנהב, a Biblical word that appears only twice in the Bible (Melachim I 10:22 and Divrei Hayamim II 9:21), both times in the plural as shenhavim שנהבים. Shenhav, Klein writes, is:

compounded of shen שן (=tooth) and hav הב, also yev יב (=elephant)

He then adds that

From Egyptian ab, abu derives also Latin ebur (=ivory), probably through the medium of the Phoenicians. From Latin ebur, eboris comes the adjective eboreus (=of ivory) whence French ivurie, ivorie, whence English ivorie, ivory.

All this seems pretty convincing to me, but the part I don't get is that both components, the "el" and the "ephas", mean "elephant." Why would the word have two parts with the same meaning? I know there are no rules about how words must develop, and you can find that phenomenon in the English word "likely" (which literally means "like-like") and the Hebrew afilu אפילו -"even if" (which can actually be broken down to something like "if-if-if".) But still it feels strange to me.

Even stranger is a related etymology that Klein provides. He writes that the word "element" ultimately is cognate with "elephant". In his entry for "element" he writes:

Of the many etymologies suggested, the most probable is that which derives the word elementum from *elepantum, 'ivory letter', an ancient Latin loan word from Greek elephantos, elephas ('elephant;ivory'.) The change of *elepantum to elementum is probably due to Etruscan influence.

The "ivory letters" that Klein mentions, according to this book, refers to the letters of the alphabet inscribed in ivory. That's an etymological connection I didn't see coming!

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