Tuesday, September 29, 2020

khnun and chanan

What is the origin of the Hebrew word for "nerd" - חנון khnun

At first glance, it might seem that chnun is related to the Hebrew word for a gifted student - מחונן mechonan. That word derives from the root chanan חנן. Chanan in turn, derives from chen חן - "grace." Chanan can mean to act graciously or mercifully, as in the verse: 

  וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם׃

"...I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." (Shemot 33:19)

That meaning gives us such words as chanun חנון - "merciful, gracious" (as in the above verse); chanina חנינה - "favor" in Biblical Hebrew (Yirmiyahu 16:13) and "amnesty" in modern Hebrew; and the words techina תחינה and tachanun תחנון, both meaning "supplication for favor."

By extension, chanan can also mean "to grant" in general (in a gracious sense). This is how it used in Bereshit 33:5 -

הַיְלָדִים אֲשֶׁר־חָנַן אֱלֹהִים אֶת־עַבְדֶּךָ

"...they are the children who God kindly granted your servant"

It is also found in the fourth blessing of the weekday Amidah prayer:

אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּעַת 

"You grant man knowledge"

From here we get the word chinam חינם - "gratuitously, for nothing, free", since something chinam was given for nothing. And it is also where the word mechonan - "gifted" comes from, since someone "gifted" was "granted" or "endowed" with a talent or knowledge.

But this is actually not the origin of khnun. Rather, it derives from a slang term, borrowed from Moroccan Arabic, sometimes spelled xnuna (or hnuna), meaning "nasal mucus" (snot). A snot-nosed kid was considered, as in English, a brat, or weak and teased for his condition, and from there it came to mean "nerd" as well. Perhaps that later meaning was influenced from an association with mechonan, but it wasn't the original derivation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

malakh and angel

The most common English translation for the Hebrew word malach מלאך is "angel." Is that a good translation? 

Well, it depends. If you think the definition of angel is (only) a divine, celestial being, perhaps with wings and a robe, then no. But as we'll see, that's not really what a malakh or an angel originally meant.

In Biblical Hebrew, malakh simply means "messenger." It can either refer to a divine messenger (in 124 cases) or a human messenger (88 times). To indicate that the malakh is sent by God, the word is conjugated with a name of God. If we look at Bereshit 32:2-4, we see examples of both kinds of messengers:

וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים׃

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם׃ 

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִיו אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם׃

Jacob went on his way, and angels of God [malakhei Elohim] encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim. Jacob sent messengers [malakhim] ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

While it is possible that Jacob sent the same angels to his brother that he encountered earlier (as Rashi writes), the plain sense of the verse is that these were human messengers (as Ibn Ezra and Radak comment.)  And there are many verses, such as Melachim I 19:2, where there is no question the malakhim are human.

Malakh derives from the root לאך, which has cognates in other Semitic languages, and means "to send." (It is not used as a verb in Hebrew, but it is used as one in Ugaritic and Arabic.) Some, like Stahl, say that לאך is related to the root הלך - "to go, to walk." The root לאך is also the origin of the word melacha מלאכה - "work, labor, craft." There are different opinions as to the connection between melacha and sending a messenger. Klein writes that melacha comes from the root meaning "to send", and therefore literally means "mission" (presumably of the person assigned to do the work.)

Others point to the phrase mishlach yad משלח יד, which literally means "sending of the hand", also means "work" (see for example Devarim 15:10,23:21). So perhaps if in that expression the laborers "send their hands" to do the work, in the parallel melacha (with the roots שלח and לאך being synonyms) maybe the hands are being sent as well.

In post-biblical Hebrew, the use of malakh began to change. It came to only mean the divine messengers, where as shaliach שליח was the term used for earthly ones. 

When the Bible was translated into Greek, a word was needed to render malakh into Greek. The word chosen was angelos, Angelos was used to refer to both human and divine messengers, as Greek didn't have a word specifically for messengers sent by God. Later the Bible was translated into Latin as well. Latin, like Greek, didn't have a word specifically for divine messengers. So those translators used the already existing Latin nuntius for human messengers (related to "nuncio" meaning envoy), and borrowed the Greek angelos for divine ones. The word angelos entered the European languages with this meaning as well. So this is how angel, in English, came to mean specifically a divine, celestial agent. 

But where does the Greek word angelos originally come from? There are a number of theories, but Klein's is particularly interesting. He says it has Semitic roots, and is cognate with familiar Hebrew words. He writes in his CEDEL:

...of Persian, ultimately of Semitic origin. Compare Akkadian agarru, 'hireling, hired laborer,' from agaru, 'to hire', which is related to Aramaic agar, eggar, 'he hired', (whence Arabic ajara, of same meaning), Hebrew iggereth, Aramaic iggera, iggarta, 'letter', properly 'message.' ... The sense development of Greek angelos [...] from a Semitic noun meaning 'hireling,' may be illustrated by the phrases 'hireling, hired messenger, messenger.'

We've actually discussed agar אגר as "to hire" before. But I didn't know then that igeret אגרת - "letter" was related to agar, and I certainly didn't know it could be related to "angel." Klein doesn't discuss the Persian bridge word between Greek and the Semitic languages, but Ben Yehuda does. He says that perhaps igeret comes from the Persian angar - meaning "story, narrative." The "n" in angar could explain the "n" in "angel" as well. From there it gets a little confusing. Perhaps the Persian was borrowed from Semitic, or maybe igeret came straight from the Semitic agar. 

In any case, igeret certainly has Persian associations, as it appears only in the books of Esther and Nechemiah (which take place in the Persian period) and in Divrei HaYamim (whose composition is also from that time.) And just like in English a messenger is one who sends a message, so too in the Semitic-Persian-Greek development of the word, it's not hard to see how igeret and angelos are connected. 

So to return to the original question - is "angel" a good translation for malakh? Well, considering both the fact that it was used specifically to translate malakh, and may even have roots in Semitic languages like Hebrew - I'd venture to say it's the perfect word for it! 


Monday, September 14, 2020

lashon hara, ayin hara, and yetzer hara

 I don't discuss grammar much here, because I don't feel confident in explaining all the intricacies of the various rules of Hebrew grammar. And usually it doesn't reflect much on my focus here - the meaning and origin of Hebrew words and phrases. 

But there are times where issues of grammar affect our understanding of those phrases, and this is one of those occasions.

I'd like to take a look at how the letter heh is used as a definite article. This Wikipedia page gives a pretty good summary:

In traditional grammar, Hebrew common nouns have three “states”: indefinite (corresponding to English “a(n)/some __”), definite (corresponding to English “the __”), and construct (corresponding to English “a(n)/some/the __ of”). Therefore, the definite article was traditionally considered to be an actual part of the definite noun. In modern colloquial use, the definite article is often taken as a clitic, attaching to a noun but not actually part of it. For example, the Hebrew term for school is בֵּית־סֵפֶר(beit séfer, house-of book); so in traditional grammar, “the school” is בֵּית־הַסֵּפֶר (beit-haséfer, house-of-the-book), but in modern colloquial speech, it is often הַבֵּית־סֵפֶר (habeit-séfer, the-house-of-book).

(More details and examples can be found here).

Speakers of a language generally absorb the rules of grammar, even if they can't explicitly explain them. So with an understanding of the rules above, Hebrew speakers usually can figure out what do with two words in one phrase.  If there are two nouns, like bayit and sefer, without the definite article, the phrase is beit sefer, and with the definite article, the phrase is beit hasefer.

If there is a noun and an adjective, however, the heh appears twice. So "a big house" is bayit gadol, but "the big house" is habayit hagadol. Again, these are intuitive rules to anyone accustomed to speaking Hebrew.

But sometimes our familiarity with these rules doesn't work to our favor, and can lead to a phenomenon called hypercorrection, where we apply rules where they don't belong, and actually use the language incorrectly.

This is the case with three familiar Hebrew phrases: lashon hara לשון הרע, ayin hara עין הרע and yetzer hara יצר הרע.

The first source of confusion is the word ra. Meaning "evil" or "bad", it can be either a noun or an adjective. But as we saw above, the only time the heh appears only before the second word in a phrase, is when they're both nouns. So I found frequent cases, where authors said that lashon hara "literally means the tongue of evil" or ayin hara "literally means the eye of evil." This is supported further by the fact that ayin and lashon are assumed to have the feminine gender, so if ra was an adjective, it would be hara'ah הרעה.

While those phrases are still generally translated as "the evil tongue" and "the evil eye" (as well as "the evil inclination" for yetzer hara) - there is a subtle difference between ra being a noun or an adjective in these phrases, especially since they are phrases loaded with religious meaning.

In these cases, ra actually is an adjective, not a noun. As this article by the Hebrew Language Academy points out, while it's not common, there are noun-adjective phrases with heh only preceding the adjective. For example, in Bereshit 1:31, we find the phrase yom hashishi יום השישי - "the sixth day", and not hayom hashishi. In post-biblical Hebrew, we find the phrase כנסת הגדולה knesset hagedola - "the great assembly", and not haknesset hagedola

And while ayin and lashon are generally feminine nouns, there are case where they are male, as in Eicha 4:4, Zecharia 4:14 and Tehilim 11:4. So there is no need to hypercorrect, and we can still translate the phrases as "the evil eye", "the evil tongue", and "the evil inclination."

And while we're here, let's take a quick look at the origin of each of the phrases:

Lashon hara: This term refers to malicious speech or slander. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for someone speaking this way is rechil רכיל, which provided the noun rechilut רכילות. In Rabbinic Hebrew, the phrase lashon hara  was introduced (based on a related phrase in Tehilim 34:14), and distinctions were made in Jewish law between rechilut and lashon hara. 

Ayin hara: This phrase appears in the mishna, for example Avot 2:11 עַיִן הָרָע, וְיֵצֶר הָרָע, וְשִׂנְאַת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם - "the evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred for humankind put a person out of the world." According to Safrai (on Avot), this likely refers to jealousy. It has a parallel the phrase ayin ra'ah in an earlier mishna (Avot 2:9), along with the opposite - ayin tova. In that case, the phrases are referring to a generous or stingy person (as explained in Avot 5:13, and based on related phrases in Devarim 15:9; 28:54,56). One who is stingy with his own possessions is likely to be jealous of the possessions of others. Only later, in the Amoraic period (for example Berachot 20a) did ayin hara come to be associated with an external, even magic, curse - "the evil eye."

Yetzer hara: This phrase, the "evil inclination", originates in Bereshit 6:5 and 8:21 - יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע‎, yetzer lev-ha-adam ra - "the inclination of man's heart was evil."  In parallel, rabbinic texts also mention the yetzer hatov - "the good inclination", which motivates people to do good. This is certainly a more optimistic approach than the fatalistic conclusion that we are only inclined to evil. The mishna (Berachot 4:9) rules that we must serve God with both of our inclinations - the good and the evil. 

Sunday, September 06, 2020

segula, segel and mesugal

 Way back in 2006, I mentioned briefly the etymology of segulah:

segula סגולה - "property" is related to the Akkadian word sugullu - herd of cattle

And a few months later, I pointed out that segula is not related to segol סגול - "violet, purple" (for a more in depth discussion see Elon Gilad's article here.)

But segula deserves much more attention. It's a word with a fascinating history, that has led to many different meanings. Let's take a look.

Much of what I'll be discussing here is based on an article (in Hebrew) by M.Z Kaddari, in his book The Medieval Heritage of Modern Hebrew Usage (Dvir, 1970). Here's a section of the English abstract which summarizes his extensive discussion Hebrew about segula:

An instructive instance in the dialects of emotional connotation is the word segula. In Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, this word was an emotional one ('valued property', 'peculiar treasure'); however, it seems to occur as a pure concept word also ('treasure', 'fortune'). This emotional change happens similarly in the language of the Piyyutim (Liturgical Poetry) and in Medieval Hebrew. Later on in Middle Hebrew, influenced by Arabic, the word designated 'characteristic feature' too, without any emotional overtone (the former emotional overtone had disappeared). But it had been used in special environments (designating objects endowed with the power of recovery); consequently, an emotional secondary meaning had developed in it ('magic quality'), which has survived up to our days in some vernacular usages. However, due to the last generations's alienation from misbeliefs, sometimes this renewed emotional meaning of segula has been suppressed: hence the word is used simply as a term of 'character,' 'quality'. In Modern Hebrew, we find segula in both meanings: the general and literary languages have its notional meaning ('quality'), while the substandard vernacular (influenced by the Musar and Hasidic literature, and by Yiddish) keeps carrying its emotional meaning ('magic quality').

I can't transcribe all 14 pages here of his Hebrew essay, but I'll try to summarize the main developments of the word.

  1. As I mentioned in my original post, segula meant "herd of cattle" in Akkadian, and that probably was the original meaning in Hebrew as well.
  2. From there, the word came to mean "property". As I pointed out in my 2006 post, the development from cattle to property can also be found in the Hebrew words rechesh רכש, kinyan קנין, and neches נכס. It is used with this meaning in Kohelet 2:8 and Divrei HaYamim I 29:3.
  3. In the Torah, Israel is described as God's segula (Shemot 19:5; Devarim 7:6, 14:2, 26:18). While it clearly indicates a close relationship between God and Israel, ultimately it indicates that the nation is His property -  a suzerainty. In the biblical context, segula does not imply any inherent advantages or positive traits. (Shemot 19:5 is noteworthy in this regard, because the nation becoming God's segula is dependent on following the laws.)
  4. In Rabbinic Hebrew, segula continues to mean "property." This is where we first find the verb סיגל sigel - meaning "to acquire property" and mesugal מסוגל - "belonging to."
  5. Once the verb sigel became widely used, segula was understood to be its gerund, so it also took on the meaning "what one acquires for oneself" - i.e. treasure.
  6. This sense of "treasure" was expanded beyond the sense of property, and came to mean something "dear" to someone. So a person could also be a segula to someone else. 
  7. In the piyuttim, a number of these meanings were combined, and so Israel is described as a segula, meaning "dear treasured nation" or "dear possession." The piyyutim literally had "poetic license," and they created new words and grammatical structures. So they created the new word segel סגל, synonymous with segula. As Yaakov Etsion discusses here, one of the phrases found in a Rosh Hashana piyyut is segel chavura סֶגֶל חֲבוּרָה. The phrase literally means that Israel is an "association of segula, a treasured group" The author flipped the semichut (construct form), as Etsion describes. This phrase was used in other contexts as a fancy, poetic expression. But over time, it was assumed to have "normal" semichut, and eventually the chavura was dropped. Today, as a result, segel means "corps, cadre, senior staff" in Modern Hebrew.
  8. In Medieval Hebrew, segula came to mean something of great importance, and particularly something "select, chosen." This is how it is used in the writings of Yehuda Halevi, for example. (Much of these Medieval uses are borrowed from parallel phrases in Arabic, which I won't go into here.) 
  9. This led to a distinction between the masses and special people, who became known as yechidei segula יחידי סגולה.
  10. Following its Arabic parallels, segula also came to mean "characteristic feature." This goes back to its early meaning of "property." The same phenomenon can be found in words in English (deriving from Latin), like "peculiar" which means "belonging exclusively to one person; special, particular", but derived from a word meaning "private property", and even further back - "cattle." The English word "property" also means both "possession, thing owned" and "nature, quality." We find this use of segula in the translations of Rambam's Arabic writings into Hebrew.
  11. Over time, segula didn't just mean "characteristic" but specifically a "positive" characteristic. (Think of how in English, we tell someone to "behave", but we mean "behave well.") It specifically became attributed to the positive attributes plants and other objects had in providing healing and health. 
  12. This association with medicine and the natural world, eventually expanded to the supernatural and the magical. A "segula", in this context, is a kind of charm or ritual, that would bring good fortune or protect from harm. 
  13. As Kaddari mentioned above, as the Jewish world became more secularized, the belief in magical segulot faded, but the word remained. Just as a segula had magical abilities, once stripped of that belief, it just became an ability. And this was particularly found in the verbal. If a person is מסוגל mesugal, he is able or capable (of performing an action). And in the hitpael form, הסתגל, means "to adapt oneself" and histaglut הסתגלות is "adaptation, acclimation."

For me, watching a word develop that way is simply beautiful. That simple root has followed the speakers of Hebrew since antiquity, always adapting to the where the nation was at the time. Truly an am segula!

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

baal habayit and boss

 The English word "boss" is so common, I would never had assumed it had a possible connection to Hebrew. It likely entered into English from Dutch, but its earlier etymology is unclear:

This is the entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"overseer, one who employs or oversees workers," 1640s, American English, from Dutch baas "a master," Middle Dutch baes, of obscure origin. If original sense was "uncle," perhaps it is related to Old High German basa "aunt," but some sources discount this theory. 

The Wiktionary entry for "boss" suggests a connection to basa, but as the source above mentions (as does Klein in his CEDEL), that theory is debatable.

One possibility is that Dutch borrowed "boss" from the Yiddish balebos, which is derived from the Hebrew ba'al habayit בעל הבית. Baal habayit is found a few times in the Tanach (Shemot 22:7, Shoftim 19:22, and Melachim I 17:17), and then extensively in Rabbinic Hebrew. It has a number of meanings in that literature, including the literal "master of the house" or "owner of the house", and can also be understood as "landowner" or "property owner." Ben Yehuda points out that it is often used in distinction to someone else - i.e. not a guest, a poor person, a worker, etc. (For an extensive discussion of the meaning in Tannaitic literature, see "The Independent Farmer (Ba'al Habayit)" in Social Stratification of the Jewish Population of Roman Palestine in the Period of the Mishnah, 70–250 CE, Ben Zion Rosenfeld, Haim Perlmutter.)

In later times, baal habayit, and the adjective baalbati בעלבתי, came to mean "bourgeois, provincial." That was one of the senses adopted into Yiddish - a balebos is an "important man" (and the woman of the house is the balabuste.) This could be the sense borrowed by the Dutch which later became "boss." (On the other hand, a balebos, as compared to a rabbi, is just a layman or congregant. It seems that it's always a relative term, understood best by what it's compared to.)

I haven't seen conclusive proof to the Yiddish origin theory. It is mentioned in The Taste of Yiddish by Lillian Feinsilver, and discussed in the "Mendele: Yiddish literature and language" discussion group here and here. (An alternate theory, that "boss" entered from Yiddish directly into American English, isn't convincing, since as mentioned above, the word is found in English already in the 17th century.)

But it certainly shouldn't be discounted too quickly. Plenty of Dutch words are borrowed from Yiddish, as discussed here, and many examples are found here. Could baas/boss be one of them? I suppose you'll need to ask a professional linguist. I'm just a balebos...