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".