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.

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