Sunday, November 10, 2019


I'd like to discuss the etymology of Tziyon ציון (Zion in English). But before I get to that, I have to answer a more basic question. What is Tzion?

In the Bible, the name first refers to the fortress of Jerusalem, conquered by King David, as in this verse:

וַיִּלְכֹּד דָּוִד אֵת מְצֻדַת צִיּוֹן הִיא עִיר דָּוִד׃
But David captured the stronghold of Tzion; it is now the City of David. (Shmuel II 5:7)

It has that limited sense in three other verses. However, in the other 150 occurrences in the Bible, it refers to either all of Jerusalem or the entire Land of Israel.

Its meaning was always more poetic or symbolic than a specific place name. I think, perhaps, it could be considered more of a concept than a location.  I particularly identify with Ruvik Rosenthal's description in his (Hebrew) book, Old Language, New Language: The Biblical Foundations of Modern Hebrew, where he writes (page 283) that Tzion "is a dream that desires to become reality." This is the sense found in the famous verses in Tehilim that describe the songs of Tzion (137:3) and the future return to Tzion (126:1).

The longing for this idealized Tzion was captured beautifully in Hebrew poetry of the Middle Ages, particularly by Ibn Gabriol and Yehuda HaLevi, in their poems known as Zionides (tzionim ציונים).

Their desire for Tzion likely inspired the groups in 19th century Europe, such as Hovevei Tzion (lovers of Tzion) who promoted immigration to the Land of Israel. Later they coalesced into a political movement, known as Zionism (tzionut ציונות). That term was coined by Nathan Birnbaum in 1890. And of course, the Zionist movement eventually led to the founding of the State of Israel.

Considering the centrality of Tzion in Jewish thought and prayer, it is surprising that the etymology is so unclear. Klein offers the following:

Of uncertain etymology. Some scholars derive it from צוה in the sense ‘to erect’ (cp. צִיּוּן). Others connect it with base צין, appearing in Arab. ṣāna (= he protected), so that צִיּוֹן would lit. mean ‘fortress, citadel’. Scholars, with reference to Syr. צֶהְיוּן (= Heb. צִיּוֹן), derive these words from base צהה or ציה; according to them the orig. meaning of צִיוֹן would be ‘bare hill’. Other scholars regard Syr. צֶהְיוּן as the older form.
His first theory connects tzion with the Hebrew word tziyun ציון - "monument, landmark." Tziyun has a verb form - צין - "to make a note, make a mark", from which we get the word metzuyan מצוין - "distinguished, excellent" (the positive connotation here apparently inherited from Yiddish and German.) Klein's connection of this root to צוה - "to command, to order", would make Tzion cognate with mitzva מצוה - "commandment."

I'm not aware of any other Hebrew cognates to the Arabic ṣāna, but his third theory, that tzion ultimately derives from the roots ציה or צהה meaning "dry, drought," has two possible outcomes. One is that, as he said, that the original meaning was "bare hill" - and Jerusalem is on the border of the Judean desert, so that name could be fitting. Another possibility (mentioned here) is that tzion was named for the wild cats that were present there - the tziyim ציים, whose name Klein writes elsewhere also derives from ציה meaning "desert, dry." While we don't find wild, desert cats in Jerusalem today, it certainly has plenty of stray cats - so that origin is perhaps still relevant.

It does seem somewhat mundane to end a discussion of such a lofty concept as Tzion by describing wild cats. But this has always been the reality of Jerusalem and Tzion - trying to find a connection between the corporeal and the spiritual...

Sunday, November 03, 2019

sepharad revisited

I've discussed a number of times that I listen to a bunch of podcasts that deal with language, linguistics and etymology. But I don't believe that I've mentioned that there are also YouTube channels that focus on those same topics.

Perhaps my favorite one is Name Explain by Patrick Foote. His charming British accent, subtle sense of humor and genuine curiosity about the etymology of words makes each video a pleasure to watch. 

Recently, I watched his video on "The Names of Iberia Explained":

Even though I've written about some of the words he discussed before, he caused me to think about them from a new perspective, and suggested some new ones that I had not heard previously.

I wrote about Sefarad ספרד - the Hebrew name for Spain - back in 2006, when I just started Balashon. It's an interesting place to write about in regards to Hebrew etymology, because it was settled at one point by the Phoenicians, and then centuries later by the Arabs, both of whom spoke languages cognate to Hebrew, and those cognates are reflected in many place names.

In that post, I wrote:

According to a theory in the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Phoenicians gave the name to Gibraltar's neighbor Spain (Hispania) as well. One theory claims that the name derives from tsepan - rabbit or hyrax (in Hebrew shafan שפן) and so another name could be "The Land of Rabbits".

I should have been more careful, and pointed out, as Rabbi Natan Slifkin famously does here, that in ancient Hebrew the shafan is only a hyrax, not a rabbit. (In fact, according to Slifkin in his book, The Camel, the Hare and the Hyraxthere were no rabbits in biblical Israel. The word commonly used today for rabbit - arnav ארנב, which in the Bible only appears in the female, arnevet ארנבת - refers to a hare, which is distinct from a rabbit.)

Name Explain was aware of this distinction, and therefore said of the origin of Hispania:

this name apparently comes from the Phoenicians who, when they came to the land noticed the rabbits that were living there. The rabbits reminded the Phoenicians of the hyraxes they have in their homeland and also the Phoenicians would have to sail there, so without knowing any better they thought the rabbit filled land was an island. So they went with the name Hispania, which means Isle of Hyraxes despite the fact it wasn't an island and it wasn't full of hyraxes.

And so in addition to properly explaining how a land of rabbits was named for hyraxes, he also implied that the "Hi" in Hispania is cognate with the Hebrew  אי - "island."

In my original post, I discussed the etymology of Gibraltar:

the name comes from the Arabic Jebel el Tarik "the Mountain of Tarik." Jebel derives from the Semitic root גבל - the same as the Hebrew word גבול gvul - meaning border.
In a later post, I expanded on the word gvul, and showed how it was likely the origin of the name of the town Byblos, which eventually gave us the word "bible."

In his video, Name Explain presented a theory that I hadn't heard before, that the word gibberish derives from Gibraltar. He quotes from this site in the show notes, which writes:

Others believe it comes from the island of Gibraltar, where residents speak an interesting mix of English, Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi and Arabic. Nonresidents often believe the natives are simply speaking… well… gibberish!
At first glance, that seemed a bit far-fetched, and the alternate explanation, that it came from the word "jabber", seemed more likely. But this detailed study indicates that the Gibraltar explanation might very well be valid.

One word I did not address in my post was the town of Ibiza. Name Explain quoted a source that said it comes from the Arabic yabisa meaning "dry land", which is cognate with the Hebrew yabasha יבשה of the same meaning, which in turn comes from the root yavesh יבש - "dry."

He also discusses the origin of the capital, Madrid. Its etymology is unclear, but he does provide one theory which gives it an Arabic origin:

Others say the Moors named the city in the 8th century. Apparently, the River Manzanares was called ‘al-Magrit’, which means water source in Arabic. The surrounding area was then called Mayrit, which comes from the Arabic term Mayra (meaning water or giver of life), which later changed to Magerit, which means ‘place of water’ in Arabic. The name then evolved to Matrit and then eventually, Madrid. This may be the most likely theory, as the name Matrit is still found as a Spanish gentilic.

That theory is further discussed in this forum, where one poster says that it may derive from an Arabic word meaning "water, stream", which comes from the root jarameaning "to flow" (as well as "to run.")

Klein writes that the Hebrew word ger גר - "foreigner, stranger" has the Arabic cognate jara - "he went astray from." Seems to me that could be the same jara as "to run" or "to flow". So if all that is true, then the name Madrid has a Hebrew cognate as well.

So from one lover of etymology to another, thanks Patrick!

Monday, October 28, 2019

egel and igul

Is there any connection between the Hebrew words egel עגל - "calf (a young cow or other large mammal)" and igul עיגול - "circle"?

According to this article, by linguist Uzzi Ornan, the connection can be found via cognates in other Semitic languages. In Arabic, the word ajila means "he hurried, hastened" (no connection to the English word agile) and Aramaic has agala עגלא - "speed", found in the adjective ba'agala בעגלא - "quickly, speedily" which appears in the Kaddish prayer.

Ornan claims that this original meaning gave us the word egel - since calves are speedy animals (from my experience working in the dairy farm of the kibbutz I once lived on, I have to agree).

In Hebrew an agala עגלה is a "carriage, wagon", which travels quickly, and it does so because it has round wheels. The word for round in Hebrew is agol עגול, and is related to two words in Hebrew that until my research for this post, I frequently confused - ma'agal מעגל and igul עגול. They both refer to "circle", but ma'agal is the circumference of the circle, and igul is the area of the entire circle. I suppose a way for me to remember this in the future is that ma'agal also means "circuit", which is a circular route (like the circumference of the circle), while igul has a similar form to ribua ריבוע - an (entire) square. Another related word is agil עגיל - "earring."

In Aramaic, the root עגל expanded to the related root ערגל meaning "to roll." Despite my best efforts, I was not able to determine if this root is the ultimate origin of my once favorite Israeli cookie - the Argaliot ערגליות (I never figured out whether the singular was argalit ערגלית or argalia ערגליה - but in any case, I never could eat just one.) I did discover that Osem, who manufactures them now, bought the Argal ערגל bakery in 1982, who originally made them.

But where did that bakery get their name from? Was it from baking "rolls"? From "rolling" the dough? That question still needs an answer.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


What's the connection between the Hebrew word geshem - גשם - "rain" and gashmi גשמי - "physical"?

From my initial research there is none. Geshem is a biblical word for rain, and appears about as frequently in the Bible as its synonym matar מטר. In Talmudic Hebrew, however, geshem became the nearly exclusive word for rain, and so it is also today.

Gashmi was borrowed into Medieval Hebrew from Arabic, which in turn is cognate with the Aramaic geshem (or gishma גשמא) meaning "body." That word is also biblical, appearing a few times in the Aramaic section of the book of Daniel. From "body" it came to mean "substance, matter", and this also led to the verbs higshim הגשים - "was carried out" or "embodied" and hitgashem התגשם - "was realized, fulfilled."

Once these verb forms entered Hebrew, it became must less common to use the root גשם to refer to the act of raining (even though there are verbs like that in Biblical Hebrew), but rather the verb form of matar: himtir המטיר -  "to make it rain." From this root we also have the words mitria מטריה - "umbrella" and mamtera ממטרה - "sprinkler."

Many sources I found, including this one from the Academy of the Hebrew Language, said there was no connection between the two homonyms. However, there are those that claim that matar referred to any kind of rain, whereas geshem was a particularly heavy rain. According to this school of thought, geshem could be related to the Arabic jasuma, "to be bulky, thick", which would lead to a connection with the Aramaic geshem - "body" as well.

Monday, October 07, 2019

nusach and nesiya

What is the origin of the Hebrew word nusach נוסח?

Before we delve into the etymology, let's discuss the meaning. Morfix offers "wording, version, style." This is true in the general sense, as in the wording of a particular document. More specifically, when discussing Jewish prayer, as the Wikipedia entry notes, nusach refers to "the style of a prayer service," signifying "the entire liturgical tradition of the community, including the musical rendition."

The related word, nuscha נוסחה means "formula, equation" and is used primarily in mathematical and scientific contexts.

Now to the origin. The original word, from Aramaic, was actually nuscha. It doesn't appear in Talmudic Aramaic, but rather first appears in the writings of the Geonim. Klein has the following entry:

נֻסְחָה f.n. MH 1 copy. 2 text, version. 3 formula. [From Aram. נֻסְחָא (= copy), which is prob. a loan word from Akka. nisḫu, nusḫu (= excerpt, copy), Arab. nusḫa (= copy), is prob. an Aram. loan word.]

 For nusach, he writes that it is a back formation from nuscha.

The authoritative dictionary of Akkadian, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, mentions the root nishu in a number of locations. (In this PDF, look at pages 23, 31, 289, 291.) Nishu derives from an earlier word, nasahu, meaning "to remove." The CAD provides many different contexts and usages for that sense of "remove." For nuscha meaning "excerpt", they also offer the meaning "extract", which, as in English, has a sense of "remove". Copy, excerpt and extract find their modern day senses in the word processing terms of "cut/copy/paste."

While nuscha only appears in post-Talmudic literature, a related root can be found in the Bible. This is the root נסח, which while appearing in that form in Devarim 28:63, is more commonly found in spoken Hebrew today in the hifil form, where the initial letter nun is dropped. The verb הסיח means "to remove, to put aside, to deflect" and appears in as a noun in the phrase hesech daat היסח דעת - "distraction" (literally, "removal of the mind.")

Dr. Hayim ben Yosef Tawil, in his book An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew (page 241), makes an interesting connection between the root נסח and another, much more common root נסע  - "to travel":

The Biblical Hebrew verb נסע, a variant of נסח, is attested at least 9 times in reference to pulling, uprooting an object. ... e.g., הסיע גפן/עץ "uproot a vine tree" (Ps 80:9; Job 19:10) ... Accordingly, the semantic development of נסע = נסח is: "pull off the pegs of the tent > break camp > move off > travel."

From the root נסע, we get the words masa מסע - "journey" and nesiya נסיעה - "trip."

So we've gone from nusach to nesiya. What a trip it's been!

Sunday, September 15, 2019


Let's take a look at the word shalal שָׁלָל. It means "spoils, booty, plunder" and according to Klein, derives from the root שלל meaning "to spoil, to plunder, to deprive" and has the following origin:

Akka. shalālu, OSArab. תלל (= to plunder), and Arab. thalla (= flock of sheep or goats). cp. the related base נשׁל.]
The root נשל, in turn, means "to slip or drop off; to draw off."

Klein writes that this original root of שלל developed into two more meanings. One is found only once in the Bible:

שׁלל ᴵᴵ to draw out (sheaves).
    — Qal - שָׁלַל he drew out sheaves (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Ruth 2:16 in the phrase שֹׁל־תָּשֹׁלוּ, ‘you shall draw out (from the bundles)’. [Arab. salla (= he pulled out, withdrew). A special sense development of שׁלל ᴵ. cp. the related base שׁלה ᴵᴵ.] 

 The root שלה - "to draw out" - gives us a number of familiar words:

  • shilya שליה - "placenta" (drawn out of the womb)
  • shilhey שלהי - "the latter part of, the end of" (literally going away, leaving)
  • shaldag שלדג - "kingfisher". Klein presents this etymology: "Coined by H.N. Bialik (1873–1934) as the abbreviation of שׁוֹלֶה דָּגִים, ‘(the bird) that draws out fishes’, from שׁוֹלֶה, part. of שָׁלָה (= he drew out), and דָּג (= fish)." It is also the name of an elite unit in the Israeli army.

A third meaning of שלל is the one most frequently found in Modern Hebrew. Klein suggests these meanings: "to remove; to refuse, to negate, to deny." When an army took the spoils, they "removed" them from those they defeated. So today when we use the verb shalal it generally means someone "rejected, denounced, ruled out" or "negated, refuted, disproved." From here we get the related words shelila שלילה - "rejection, invalidation, elimination" and shelili שלילי - "negative."

Another form of that verb is hishtolel השתולל. Today it means "to misbehave, to act unruly", but it originally meant "to be deranged", and Ben Yehuda indicates it therefore meant "to be lacking sanity."

One word that does not seem to fit this pattern is shelal שלל - "abundance". Klein says that this post-Biblical word (he defines as "bunch") actually comes from an unrelated homonym of שלל. This root means "to stitch loosely, join together loosely, to chain, fetter." He provides two possible etymologies:

Prob. denominated from שַׁלְשֶׁלֶת (= chain). However, it is also possible that שׁלל in this sense is a Shaph‘el verb formed from לוּלָאָה (= loop), so that שׁלל ᴵⱽ would properly mean ‘to tie with loops’.
Based on this meaning of the root, he writes that shelal was originally from the phrase shelal shel beitzim שלל של ביצים - "embryonic eggs joined together."

However, Even Shoshan says that shelal too originates in the meaning of "spoils". A victor reviewing his spoils would find a bounty before him, as in the metaphor found in Tehilim 119:162:

שָׂשׂ אָנֹכִי עַל־אִמְרָתֶךָ כְּמוֹצֵא שָׁלָל רָב׃
I rejoice over Your word as one who finds great spoil. 

An example of this sense development is found in the Song of Devorah (Shoftim 5:30):

הֲלֹא יִמְצְאוּ יְחַלְּקוּ שָׁלָל רַחַם רַחֲמָתַיִם לְרֹאשׁ גֶּבֶר שְׁלַל צְבָעִים לְסִיסְרָא שְׁלַל צְבָעִים רִקְמָה צֶבַע רִקְמָתַיִם לְצַוְּארֵי שָׁלָל׃
“They must be dividing the spoil they have found: A damsel or two for each man, Spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera, Spoil of embroidered cloths, A couple of embroidered cloths Round every neck as spoil.” 
Shelal tzevaim - "a spoil of color(ed cloths)" took on the sense of "an abundance (or variety) of colors."

So now we can see how one root developed into both very negative and very positive connotations.

Monday, September 02, 2019


The Hebrew verb ichpat איכפת is strange. (It is sometimes pronounced in Modern Hebrew as echpat, perhaps because it is more commonly written as אכפת - without a yod - and therefore looks like another similarly structured word אפשר, pronounced efshar. To hear the word in Hebrew, along with many examples of current usage, listen to this episode of the great podcast Streetwise Hebrew.)

While commonly translated as "to care", I think a better translation would be "to matter" or "to concern", since it is always followed by the preposition "to" as in lo ichpat li or ma ichpat lecha, which mean "[it] doesn't matter to me" and "what [does it] concern you". It is the root of the word ichpatiut - איכפתיות - "empathy" (discussed at length here).

What is the etymology of the word?

It first appears in post-biblical Hebrew, and Even-Shoshan notes that it was borrowed from Aramaic (for example in the Targum to Divrei Yamim I 21:13), where it is a form of the (related) Hebrew roots אכף or כפה, meaning "force, compel".  This is also a theory presented by Klein:

אִכְפַּת intr. v. PBH to pressure, to care, concern. [Of uncertain etymology. Perles connects it with Syr. אֱכַף (= he had regard to, was solicitous, took care of). See אכף ᴵ.] 
His entry for אכף is as follows:

אכף ᴵ to press force.
    — Qal - אָכַף he pressed, urged (in the Bible, a hapax legomenon occurring Pr. 16:26). [JAram. אֲכַף, Syr. אֱכַף (= he pressed, pressed hard, urged), Akka. ukkupu (= to urge).]

In Modern Hebrew אכף means "to enforce",  and akifa אכיפה means "enforcement." Klein suggests that ukaf אוכף - "saddle", also may derive from this root. Jastrow makes the same connection, and offers a common meaning - "burden".

A different theory connecting ichpat and ukaf is presented by Horowitz (p. 90). He writes that

the basic thought here is "resting upon." The saddle rests upon the horse. Ma ichpat li מה איכפת לי really means how does this rest upon me, and figuratively, of course, how does this concern me.

This is similar to the position of the Arukh, who says the root means "to bind" (so possibly deriving from the root כפת - "to bind"), and in the same way a saddle is bound to a horse, this "thing" is now connected to me.

In the footnotes of the Ben Yehuda dictionary, all of these suggestions are discussed, and in the end, none appear convincing. But ma ichpat li? It was fun looking into them!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

sababa and machloket

I found a couple of interesting etymologies related to words that we've discussed before, so I thought I'd share them with you now.

Back in 2006, we talked about the word tzvi צבי. I wrote that Klein:

connects it to the root צבה - meaning "to wish, desire". This verb is found in Aramaic Daniel 6:18, in the Aramaic translations to Biblical Hebrew words such as חשק, חפץ and רצון (all meaning will or desire), and in the Talmud as well (Yoma 86b, 87a). Therefore a translation of Eretz HaTzvi could be "a desirable land", which would pair up well with the phrase ארץ חמדה - Eretz Hemda, which means the same thing.
From this root we also get the Hebrew word צביון tzivyon, which originally meant "will or desire", later became "beauty", and in Modern Hebrew means "character, nature".

Well, this apparently is also the root of the Hebrew slang word sababa סבבה - meaning "cool".  As Shoshana Kordova writes:

Sababa is one of several Hebrew slang words meaning “great” or “cool” and can express enthusiasm, satisfaction or assent (“sure,” “no problem”).
“How was your presentation? Did everything go as planned?” one colleague might ask another. “Oh yeah,” the response might be. “It all went sababa, no hitches.”
Sababa comes from the Arabic word tzababa, which means “great” or “excellent” in spoken Arabic, though it is also a more formal Arabic word meaning “yearning” or “strong love.” 

So this meaning of "yearning, strong love" in Arabic for tzababa is cognate with the Hebrew צבה, also meaning "desire."


In 2017, I discussed the root חלק, meaning to divide. It is the root of the word machloket מחלוקת, meaning "division, dispute, disagreement."

This word appears in a well-known mishna (Avot 5:17) -

כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:

Every machloket that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the machloket that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the machloket of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the machloket that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the machloket of Korah and all his congregation. 
The word machloket in this English translation originally appeared as "dispute" and "controversy." However, Safrai, in his commentary, says that this understanding is difficult. Disputes "for the sake of heaven" should be easy to resolve by good arguments, whereas disputes not for the sake of heaven, where personal and external factors are involved, will not be settled by claims of logic.

So Safrai, quoting Melamed, writes that the word machloket here does not mean "dispute", but rather "division", i.e. the different groups (on either side of the debate). This was the meaning in Biblical Hebrew (it appears frequently in Divrei Hayamim), and is parallel to the word miflaga מפלגה - also meaning division (the root פלג means divide as well), and is the word for "political party" in Modern Hebrew. Therefore, Safrai concludes, that groups that are organized for a positive purpose ("for the sake of heaven") will endure.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

tzofeh and tzipui

The Hebrew root צפה has two different meanings.

One means "to look, observe, keep watch, expect", and gives us such words as:

  • tzafui צפוי - "foreseen"
  • tzofeh צופה - "scout"
  • mitzpeh מצפה - "lookout, observatory"
The other meaning of צפה is "to coat, to cover, to overlay." Tzipui ציפוי means "covering, coating, glaze."

Is there any connection between the two meanings?

Klein doesn't indicate any. He provides two distinct etymologies. For the meaning "to look", he writes:

JAram. צְפֵי, אִצְטֽפֵי (= he looked out), Ethiop. tasafawa (= he hoped), New Punic צפא (= seer). cp. also Akka. ṣubbu (= to look at).

And for the meaning "to cover", he simply notes:

JAram. צִפָּא (= laying over, covering).

Not too much to go on there, but certainly no connection is offered. To find some possible theories, we're going to need to go to older dictionaries. Since linguistics was not as developed when they were written, these suggestions are much more speculative. But since there is nothing even in Klein's theory that precludes a connection (like the two roots having clearly distinct origins), it is interesting to read their theories.

Steinberg, in his Milon HaTanach, seems to indicate that the original meaning of the root was "to cover", and the secondary meaning, "to observe", came from the sense "to put one's eye on". If this is the case, perhaps it follows a similar development as the English word "cover", which earlier meant "to put something over something else" and later, in the field of journalism, came to mean "to investigate."

Gesenius says the root means "to shine, to be bright", based on an Arabic cognate. From this, he writes, the meaning "to look out, to view" properly means "to enlighten with the eyes." And he claims that the original meaning of "to cover" was "to overlay with gold or silver", i.e. to make splendid. (Notably, the BDB, which is built on Gesenius, does not mention this theory.)

Jastrow has a similar theory. He also says the original meaning was "to shine." While he doesn't explain the connection between "to shine" and "to look" (I assume it has something to do with light), like Gesenius, he says that "to cover" originally meant "to cover with shining plate."

Finally, Tur Sinai, in a note on Ben Yehuda's entry for the meaning of "to overlay" writes that perhaps this root doesn't mean "to cover" at all, but rather to purify and to improve - "to ennoble" in his words. He then says that this would make the root cognate with an Arabic root צפי meaning "to purify", which is related to another Arabic root צפא, meaning "was pure and clear." If this is the case, Tur Sinai notes, it could be connected to the other Hebrew root, meaning "to see" - which would properly mean "to see clearly." In any case, he summarizes, tzipui in Biblical Hebrew never means to simply cover, but to cover with some better material. 

So did I cover everything?

Monday, August 12, 2019


Just before the main part of the Jewish wedding ceremony under the chuppah, the groom approaches the bride, and covers her face with a veil. This ceremony is known as the "badeken."

In the past, when I thought about the etymology of the word, I assumed it derived from the Hebrew badak בדק - "to examine." My assumption was based on an association with the story of the wedding of the patriarch Yaakov. He thought he was marrying Rachel, but was deceived, and ended up marrying her sister Leah. Since the badeken ceremony is the last chance for the groom to "inspect" the bride before the chuppah (and in many arranged weddings in earlier times, perhaps the first time he met her at all), I figured this was his opportunity for a bedika בדיקה - "inspection", hence badeken.

But no. This Yiddish word,  באַדעקן,  actually derives from the German bedecken, meaning "to cover" (in this case with a veil). It has an Indo-European etymology:

From Old High German *bidecchen, from Proto-Germanic *biþakjaną, equivalent to be- +‎ decken. Cognate with Dutch bedekken, English bethatch, Swedish betäcka.
I had never heard of the English example bethatch (and neither has my spell checker), but of course it is related to "thatch", which is the covering (i.e. roof) of a house. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following entries for thatch:

thatch (v.)
late 14c., thecchen, from Old English þeccan "to cover, cover over, conceal," in late Old English specifically "cover the roof of a house," related to þæc "roof, thatching material," from Proto-Germanic *thakjan (source also of Old Saxon thekkian, Old Norse þekja, Old Frisian thekka, Middle Dutch decken, Dutch dekken, Old High German decchen, German decken "to cover"), from PIE root *(s)teg- "to cover." 
thatch (n.)
Old English þæc "roof, thatch, cover of a building," from Proto-Germanic *thakam (source also of Old Norse þak, Old Frisian thek, Swedish tak, Danish tag, Middle Dutch, Dutch dak "roof," Old High German dah "covering, cover," German Dach "roof"), from PIE root *(s)teg- "to cover."
We've seen *(s)teg before - it's ultimately the root of the Hebrew word tag תג - "crown".  And one more English cognate is the word "deck". The noun refers to the covering of a boat, and the verb means to "adorn, array or clothe with something ornamental (as in deck the halls)." Which is pretty much what the badeken ceremony is - and an easy way to remember the proper etymology.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

kesef and kisufim

The Hebrew word kesef כסף - "silver" or "money" and kisufim כיסופים - "longing", share the same root. What is the connection between the the two?

According to most scholars, both words derive from an earlier root meaning "white" or "pale".

For example, Klein, in his entry for the verb כסף - "to long for", writes:

Aram. כְּסַף (was pale, was white; whence ‘was white for shame’, ‘was ashamed’), Arab. kasapha (= was colorless, was obscured, was eclipsed — said of the sun or the moon).

As Stahl writes, both shame and yearning cause a person to become pale.

And Klein continues in his entry for kesef  - "silver":

Related to Phoen. כסף, BAram. and Aram. כְּסַף, כַּסֽפָּא, Syr. כֻּסְפָּא, Ugar. ksp, Akka. kaspu. These words prob. derive from כסף and lit. mean ‘the pale metal’.
In his concordance, Even Shoshan lists three meanings for kesef, seemingly in the order the senses developed:

1) the metal silver, which is the most frequent use of kesef in the Bible
2) an abbreviation of shekel kesef  שקל כסף - "a weight of silver", which represents a particular value of silver, based on a standard weight
3) price, which only appears three times in the Bible. This sense is not connected to silver at all and developed into the common meaning today, "money."

One other word that may derive from this early meaning "white" is Caspian, as in the Caspian Sea. The Online Etymology Dictionary has this entry:

Caspian (adj.)  of or pertaining to the great inland sea of central Asia, 1580s, from Latin Caspius, from Greek Kaspios, named for native people who lived on its shores (but who were said to be originally from the Caucasus), Latin Caspii, from a native self-designation, perhaps literally "white."

This site theorizes that the Semitic word may have come from the Sumerians, and from Mesopotamia, the word spread to the Caucasus.

Sunday, July 28, 2019


Continuing our tour of the Mediterranean, this time we'll look at the name Buttigieg - most famous today as the surname of the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who is currently running for President of the United States.

Buttigieg is certainly an unusual last name - difficult to spell and to intuit the pronunciation (boot-edge-edge). Pete's father, Joseph, was born in Malta, and their surname is Maltese.

Maltese is a Semitic language (descending from a variety of Arabic), and we've noted before that the name Malta itself is likely of Phoenician origin, and cognate to the Hebrew root מלט malat - "to escape."

So I thought it would be interesting to see if Buttigieg has any cognates familiar to Hebrew speakers. The name derives from the Arabic Abū d-dajāj. Abu literally means father, and dajaj means chickens (or poultry).  Together, the name referred to a dealer in poultry.

Dajaj appears also in the full name of the star Deneb - which was originally known as ḏanab ad-dajāja, “the hen's tail”. Deneb is used frequently in fiction, including Star Trek. (Mayor Pete is a fan of Star Trek, and is quite a linguaphile. I wonder if he's aware of the connection to his name.)

Returning to Buttigieg/Abū d-dajāj, abu is certainly cognate with the Hebrew av אב - "father." But what about dajaj? Any Hebrew relatives?

I'll start out by saying that I was not able to find any clear connection between dajaj and any Hebrew (or Aramaic) word that I know (outside of an Aramaic cognate in this book, but I could not find any other source that mentions such a word). If any of you readers can help, I welcome your input.

 While I could not find any Hebrew cognates, there are cognates in other Semitic languages, including dagag in Ge'ez, also meaning "domestic fowls". In this dictionary of Ge'ez, they write that the word derives "from an onomatopoetic dgdg" and compares to to a word in Sahri (another Semitic language), edegdeg - "make a tapping noise."

If dajaj is of onomatopoetic etymology - the pecking of the chickens - then the search for its origin ends there. But I'm not yet convinced.

This dictionary of Iraqi Arabic says that dagdag  means "to bang, to pound", and dagg means "to grind, to crush". And this database of Semitic roots says that many related languages have similar roots meaning "trample down", "press, squeeze", or  "tap". Perhaps ultimately all of those derive from an onomatopoetic ancestor, but I think that might leave room for some connection to Hebrew. If we consider the theory that some of the most ancient three consonant Semitic roots are based in earlier roots of two consonants (as we discussed here), then perhaps there was a two letter root *dg that meant "to beat, to pound." This would fit an onomatopoetic origin as well, since the sound of *dg is similar to tapping or knocking.

And if that's the case - and I admit I'm speculating here - there are some Hebrew words with related meanings that begin with dg:

  • dagesh דגש  - as we discussed here, originally meant "to pierce"
  • digdeg דגדג - "to tickle", which Ben Yehuda coined from the Arabic daghdagha (a distinct spelling from dajaj)

And if we note the similarity between "g" and "k", we find these as well:

  • dakak דקק - "to crush, pulverize"
  • dakar דקר - "to pierce, stab"
I'm not sure what I think of these options. Ultimately, they're just stabs in the dark...

Monday, July 22, 2019


After discussing Cyprus and Rhodes, this time we'll look at another Mediterranean island in our discussion of "mayonnaise." (And no, I'm not looking into the origin of Thousand Island dressing.)

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this possible etymology for mayonnaise:

1815, from French sauce mayonnaise (1806), said by French sources to be corrupted from mahonnaise and to have been named in recognition of Mahon, seaport capital of island of Minorca, captured by France in 1756 after the defeat of the British defending fleet in the Seven Years' War
(For a more detailed discussion about this and other theories about the origin, see this article.)

But of course, we need to go a little deeper. Where did the city of Mahón get its name?

This goes all the way back to the brother of the famous general of Carthage, Hannibal. According to this book,

His youngest brother Mago ... possessed himself of the island now called Minorca, where Port Mahon (Mago's Harbour) still preserves the memory of his visit.

If you're still asking why is all of this being discussed here, we need to remember (as we've discussed before) that Carthage was originally a Phoenician colony, and so they also spoke a Semitic language.

So could this Mago have a Hebrew cognate? This article about Mago Barca says that Mago is from Phoenician mgn, meaning "godsent". This root already seems similar to the Hebrew magen מגן - but in Hebrew it means "shield". Could "godsent" somehow be related to "shield" or "protect"?

Many sources claim that a better translation for "godsent" would be "benefactor" - one who gives or helps others. Perhaps surprisingly, there are two different roots (having the same spelling) for מגן. One  means "to shield, protect" and, as Klein writes, derives from the noun magen, which in turn comes from the root גנן - "to cover, protect."

Regarding the other מגן, he says it means "to deliver up, deliver" and provides this etymology:

Phoen. מגן (= he gave), Aram.-Syr. מַגָּן, Arab. majānan (= as a gift, gratis), Ugar. mgn (= to beseech).

Ibn Ezra, on Bereshit 14:20, points out that in this root the letter mem is radical (part of the root), which is not the case of magen as shield, where the root is גנן and the mem serves as a prefix.

In Biblical Hebrew magen as shield is far more common, but there are three verses where the root מגן means "to give" or "to deliver" - Bereshit 14:20, Hoshea 11:8 and Mishlei 4:9. (Some say that magen in Bereshit 15:1 has the meaning of suzerain or benefactor as well, and not shield as commonly translated.) The root with that meaning appears much more frequently in Talmudic literature.

Monday, July 15, 2019


Last time we talked about the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This time, we'll discuss a neighboring island: Rhodes.

Rhodes is likely the source of the biblical sea people, sons of Yavan (Greece) known as the Rodanim רודנים, as mentioned in Divrei Hayamim I 1:7. (The parallel text in Bereshit 10:4 lists them as the Dodanim דודנים, but various ancient translates translate that verse with Rodanim.)  And what is the origin of the name Rhodes?

There are a few proposed etymologies, all of which may have some connection to Hebrew.

The Online Etymology Dictionary presents three theories. The first two claim that it derives from:

Greek Rhodos, perhaps from rhodon "rose," or rhoia "pomegranate"

Rhodon as rose is cognate with the Hebrew vered ורד as we discussed earlier, quoting Klein:

Aramaic ורדא, borrowed from Iranian *wrda, whence Greek rodon, whence Latin rosa (=rose)

This article mentions a suggestion that rhoia derives from the Hebrew word for pomegranate, rimmon רימון.

So both of these have a Hebrew connection. In the first one, the Hebrew and Greek have a common ancestor, and in the second the Greek may derive from the Hebrew.

However the Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to make an additional suggestion:

but "more likely" [Room, Adrian, Place Names of the World] from a pre-Greek name, from Phoenician erod "snake," for the serpents which were said to have anciently infested the island.
Phoenician is a Semitic language, very close to Hebrew, however I could not find a Hebrew (or Aramaic) cognate to erod as snake. (Other spellings include hrʿd , rhad  and *ʔar(a)w- ).  Perhaps one of you can?

*** Update ***

Two helpful readers found what might very well be a Hebrew cognate for the Phoenician erod. This is the post-biblical ערוד (alternatively vocalized as arod or arvad/arwad). It appears in Talmudic literature as a snake (or another reptile) as in Berachot 33a and Chullin 127a). This arod should not be confused with the arod of biblical Hebrew (Iyov 39:5), which is an African wild donkey. I haven't found any significant research about the etymology of arvad/arod meaning snake, but it's certainly possible that it is related to the Semitic cognates I mentioned earlier. Great job!

Sunday, July 07, 2019

copper, Cyprus, cypress and gopher

Sometimes it feels like tracking the etymologies of words is like a centuries long game of telephone. Let me show you what I mean.

Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary for the word "copper":

late Old English coper, from Proto-Germanic *kupar (source also of Middle Dutch koper, Old Norse koparr, Old High German kupfar), from Late Latin cuprum, contraction of Latin Cyprium (aes) "Cyprian (metal)," after Greek Kyprios "Cyprus"

So copper comes from Cyprus (both linguistically and physically). Where does the name Cyprus come from?

large eastern Mediterranean island, late 14c., Cipre, Cipres, from Latinized form of Greek Kypros "land of cypress trees"

Cyprus/cypress. Fair enough. So what is the etymology of cypress? Here we get to a Hebrew connection:

from Old French cipres (12c., Modern French cyprès), from Late Latin cypressus, from Latin cupressus, from Greek kyparissos, probably from an unknown pre-Greek Mediterranean language. Perhaps it is related to Hebrew gopher, name of the tree whose wood was used to make the ark (Genesis vi.14).

Here we probably have arrived at almost the end of the line. Klein doesn't have much to offer as to the origin of gofer גפר:

m.n. ‘gopher’ (a kind of wood of which Noah’s ark was made). [Of unknown origin. Perhaps related to Akka. giparu.]

Sarna, in his JPS commentary on the one appearance of gofer (Bereshit 6:14), writes:

Many modern scholars prefer the cypress both because of a similarity in sound to the Hebrew and because it was widely used in shipbuilding in ancient times, due to its resistance to rot.

Giparu meant a kind of reed in Akkadian. It's unclear to me how a word for a reed became the word for a tree - unless both were used to build boats (compare the ark of Noah to the ark of baby Moses.) But I guess that's the nature of telephone - the further you go along, the harder it is to figure out what the original message was...

Monday, July 01, 2019

mekhir and mechira

Last time we discussed two homographs - words written the same, with different pronunciations. Now I'd like to talk about two roots that are homophones - same pronunciation, but different spelling: mekhir מחיר and mechira מכירה.

Actually, they only appear to have the same pronunciation to those speaking Hebrew influenced by the Ashkenazic tradition, where the letters khet (ח) and chaf (כ) sound the same. In the Sefardic and Yemenite pronunciations, the two letters have distinct sounds. However, since the words have similar meanings - mekhir is "price" and mechira is "sale" - to many Hebrew speakers a common etymology might seem possible. However, as in our previous discussion, the two roots aren't connected.

Klein (and others) note that both have cognates in Akkadian.

This is what he writes about מכר - "to sell" (the root of the word mechira):

Aram.-Syr. מֽכַר (= he married; properly: bought as a wife), Ugar. mkr (= tradesman), Akka. makkūru, namkūru (= possession), tamkaru (= tradesman)

He adds that the  Akkadian tamkaru is the source of tagar תגר - a post-biblical word for merchant or trader:

Together with Aram. תַּגָּר, תַּגָּרָא, Syr. תַּגָּרָא, תַּאגָּרָא, Arab. tājir (of s.m.), borrowed from Akka. tamgāru, tamkāru (of s.m.), which itself is traceable to מכר (= to sell)
And here is his entry for mekhir:

מְחִיר m.n. price, hire. [Prob. a loan word from Akka. maḫīru (= purchase price), which derives from maḥām (= to receive, get, buy).] 

He writes that it is related to the word mohar מוהר - "dowry."

Stahl (in his Arabic Etymological Dictionary) suggests that this Akkadian root is also the source of the Hebrew root מור - "to change", which gives us the words hamara המרה - "exchange" and temura תמורה - "substitution".

Sunday, June 23, 2019

chalav and chelev

I was recently asked if there was any connection between the homographs chalav חָלָב - "milk" and chelev חֵלֶב - "fat" (particularly suet, the fat forbidden to eat according to Jewish law).

My first instinct was to answer that of course they are related. Both words are of biblical origin, and  milk has a high fat content (particularly as was consumed in ancient times). And, I thought, a parallel could be made with shuman שומן - "fat" (the kind permitted to eat) and shamenet שמנת - "cream".

But if there's one thing years of writing on Balashon has taught me, is that my first instinct is often wrong. And it certainly was this time.

Sometime when I look at etymologies of Hebrew words, I'm comfortable looking at pre-modern sources. The problem with doing that in cases like this, is that the temptation to connect such similar words is great, and without the assistance of modern linguistics, it was nearly impossible for earlier scholars to get to the real origins of the words.

So in this case, I went straight to Klein (made much easier by Sefaria's digitized edition of his book).

Here is his entry for chalav:

חָלָב m.n. milk. [Related to Aram. חֲלַב, Syr. חַלְבָּא, Ugar. ḥlb, Arab. ḥalab, ḥalib, Ethiop. ḥalīb (= milk). Akka. ḥalābu (= to milk).]

And here is his entry for chelev:

חֵֽלֶב m.n. fat, grease. [Related to Phoen. חלב, Syr. חֶלְבָּא, Arab. ḥilb (= midriff). The orig. meaning of these words was perhaps ‘fat of the midriff’.) ]

The two aren't related, and I couldn't find any modern source that did connect the two. 

But it turns out I wasn't only wrong about that. I thought that shuman and shamenet were also biblical words. Nope. Shuman was introduced during the Talmudic period (and is related to the biblical word for oil, shemen שמן). Shamenet is actually very modern word, only being coined in 1933. It replaced Ben Yehuda's word for cream - zivda זבדה (based on the Arabic zubda - "butter, cream".) Ben Yehuda writes that he chose that word, because the biblical word for cream - chemah חמאה - had become in his time used for the product of churning cream - i.e. butter - a new word was needed for cream.

And while shamenet is certainly based on the root שמן (connecting it to shemen and shuman), that wasn't why it was chosen. Rather, there was already a common Yiddish word - shmant - meaning "cream". And shmant doesn't have any Hebrew cognates at all. It's directly related to the German schmand (and therefore likely a distant cousin of the English word "smooth".)