Sunday, November 24, 2019


A reader asked about two words: nagar נגר and rahit רהיט. He points out an interesting similarity between the two. Both appear to derive from roots which have some some association with carpentry and with flowing. Is there some common justification for this, or is it just a coincidence?

We've already discussed rahit here - and the investigation was inconclusive. But what about nagar?

According to Klein, nagar meaning "carpenter" derives from the Akkadian naggaru, and Sokoloff goes even further back to the Sumerian nagar - all of the same meaning. It first appears in Rabbinic Hebrew.

However, the verb נגר - "to pour, flow, run" has a different origin. It appears in the Bible, and according to Klein, it is related to the root גרר - "to drag, tow, draw." Unlike nagar the carpenter, in this root the letter nun isn't radical. In Hebrew it was added on, and in other Semitic languages, it doesn't appear, like in Akkadian gararu and Arabic jarra (which would make it possibly related to the word Madrid, as we discussed recently.)

One related word is megerah מגרה - "drawer", which is "drawn out." A homonym of megerah meaning "drawer" is the older, biblical, megerah - which means "saw", the tool used for cutting, dragging the blade across the wood.

The fact that this tool was likely used by a carpenter must have caused some people to assume a connection between the two roots. As I said above, the Akkadian and Sumerian derivation of nagar - carpenter is very well established. And yet a theory connecting megerah and nagar pops up in a surprising number of recent sources, including the Even-Shoshan dictionary (in the entry for נַגָּר), Wikimilon, and even Klein himself, despite having provided the Akkadian etymology. I guess sometimes it's hard to root out outdated etymologies.

Sunday, November 17, 2019


In a recent post, I discussed Semitic connections to places in Spain. Let's take a look now at another European country - Britain.

First of all, I'd like to dismiss any idea that Britain could come from "Brit-Ish." A great job of debunking this theory was done by Philologos in 2005:

Rabbi Samuel Silver of Boca Raton, Fla., has a short question: “Is ‘British’ related to brit?” 
I take it that this question is tongue in cheek. The claim that “British” comes from the Hebrew words brit (or “covenant,” familiar to many of you in its Ashkenazic form of bris, a circumcision) and ish (“man”) so that it means “man of the covenant” has been around for a long time — 200 years, in fact. It goes back to the beginnings of the British Israelites, a movement founded in England in the early 19th century to promulgate the idea that the British people hailed from the 10 (actually nine) Lost Tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel that disappeared from history after being carried off into exile by the Assyrians in the eighth century C.E. 
The British Israel movement was founded by an Englishman named Richard Brothers, who in 1800 published a book titled “Correct Account of the Invasion of England by the Saxons, Showing the English Nation To Be Descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes.”At its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the movement had tens of thousands of followers. Among the many “proofs” offered by it, such as the claim that the Stone of Scone in Westminster Abbey was the very stone that served Jacob as a pillow on the night he dreamed his ladder of angels while fleeing from his brother, Esau, were a large number of supposed linguistic resemblances between English and biblical Hebrew. The British/brit ish equation was one of the foremost of these. 
Of course, any beginning Hebrew student could tell you that “man of the covenant” in Hebrew is ish brit and not brit ish, but the British Israelites were never a group to be deterred by even the simplest facts... 

Feel free to read the rest of his column for more explanation of why people insist on seeing patterns where the aren't any. This something I've discussed many times in Balashon, and perhaps even more in person. People frequently come up to me, knowing my interest in Hebrew etymology, and ask me if this Hebrew word is related to that English word. I certainly understand their curiosity, and even their emotional interest in finding such a bond, but in the end, we need to deal with evidence.

With all that in mind, I found a different theory about the etymology of Britain and a possible Semitic connection. I'll say from the outset that I'm skeptical of this one, but I'm not quite as ready to dismiss it out of hand.

Apparently it's been around for quite a while. Here's a summary from a geology website:

The Phoenicians, a now vanished pre-Roman civilisation in North Africa, traded directly with Cornwall. The name “Britain” comes from the Phoenician name “Baratanac”, meaning “Land of Tin”. The Greek historian Herodotus, who is the source for much of the little we know about the ancient world, describes how tin comes from the Cassiterides, ‘lands of tin’ that sat beyond Gaul (France).
The fact that tin mining took place in Britain in ancient times is not under dispute. And it's not preposterous to claim that the Phoenicians sailed to Britain. The only question is whether that particular etymology is reasonable and has any evidence.

 Let's look at the etymology itself. It took me some time, but I believe I have managed to dissect baratanac into two Semitic words that could give us Land of Tin.

First is barat. I think that this theory likely connects it to a cognate of the Hebrew word bar בר, which I've discussed here. Klein provides this entry, which makes it a reasonable candidate:

open field (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Job 39:4). [cp. BAram. בָּרָא, JAram. בָּרָא, בַּר (= open field), Syr. בָּרָא (= open field), Aram.–Syr. בּוּר (= to lie uncultivated), Arab. barr (= open country, inland, continent), Akka. barru, bāru (= open country).] 

And what about anac? This has a cognate in the Hebrew anakh אנך, found in Amos 7:7-8. While many translate it there as "lead" (or the synonymous "plumb"), there's good evidence that "tin" is a better translation. For example, there already is a Hebrew word for lead - oferet עופרת. And in the Akkadian cognate annaku, it clearly means "tin."

So it looks nice. Does it hold water? Most people say no (including a comment accepted by that geology website above). The most common etymology says it comes from a word meaning "tattooed people." Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary for Briton:

c. 1200, "a Celtic native of the British Isles," from Anglo-French Bretun, from Latin Brittonem (nominative Britto, misspelled Brito in MSS) "a member of the tribe of the Britons," from *Britt-os, the Celtic name of the Celtic inhabitants of Britain and southern Scotland before the 5c. Anglo-Saxon invasion drove them into Wales, Cornwall, and a few other corners. In 4c. B.C.E. Greek they are recorded as Prittanoi, which is said to mean "tattooed people." 
In response, those who claim a Phoenician connection point out that tattoos weren't unique to Britain at that time. And they provide other sources of evidence against other counter-claims. Read here and here for more extensive discussion.

Where am I at the end of all of this? Unconvinced. Maybe that's a sign of my lack of knowledge - I admit that I haven't researched this as extensively as a confident conclusion would demand. But I think it's also due to a feeling that many on both sides have an interest in a particular outcome. There are those that wanted to prove a connection between Britain and the biblical lands for religious reasons. Others rejected any possibility of such a connection (even if the etymology itself didn't hold up) for their own reasons, not all of which are purely academic.

But actually, being unconvinced is fine. It means that people will continue to study this question (and others), and through that effort come up with unforeseen discoveries. As a lover of language, I couldn't ask for anything more.

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...

** Thanks so much to reader Yair Ron, for writing on the Facebook page:

"I'm not aware of any other Hebrew cognates to the Arabic ṣāna" - of course there is: צנה is a large shield, a body armor or a defensive wall, and Klein thinks it may be related to the same Arabic root.
Here's Klein's entry:

a large shield (covering the whole body). 2 a protective wall. NH 3 barrel shield of a revolver. [Derived from base צנן, which prob. means ‘to preserve, keep’, and possibly related to Arab. ṣāna (= he preserved, kept).] 

So that's one more possible origin.

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!