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 I did discover that Osem, who manufactures them now, bought the Argal ערגל bakery in 1982, who originally made them.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!