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...

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