Sunday, December 27, 2020


The Hebrew root pakad פקד has many meanings. Some of them seem to be opposites. For example, a mifkad מפקד is a census, where those present are counted. But someone absent is nifkad נפקד (like an AWOL soldier.) What's the story with this root?

Edward Horowitz, in his book How the Hebrew Language Grew, addresses this question (page 56):

Anyone who has studied the Bible in Hebrew or who has even only a fair familiarity with it will remember coming across the word pakad very often. It actually occurs several hundreds of times and in many seemingly unrelated senses. It would be worthwhile to tie them all together.

The root pakad has the large general senses of "to give one's attention to." From this large general meaning there have developed many specialized senses. These simply specify in detail various ways of giving one's attention.

Thus pakad means:

  1. to attend to
  2. to observe
  3. to remember
  4. to seek, and sometimes to seek in vain, i.e. to need, to miss
  5. to visit, and sometimes to visit in an evil sense, i.e. to punish, usually divine punishment
  6. to number
  7. to put someone in charge, to appoint
The nifal [nifkad] picks up three of these senses, and means: 1) was appointed, 2) was visited upon, 3) was sought vainly, i.e. missed. The hifil [hifkid] has the meaning to appoint, and to to entrust or deposit. The hitpael [hitpaked] means "was numbered."

There are a number of nouns that come from this formidable list:

  • pekuda פקודה - visitation, numbering
  • pakid פקיד - overseer, officer
  • pikud פיקוד - a precept, because it means something appointed to be done, a charge
  • pikadon פקדון - something entrusted, a deposit
  • mifkad מפקד - numbering or mustering, appointment
  • tafkid תפקיד - function
A modern language cannot possibly use just one single word in these many important different senses and yet remain sharp, clear and exact. It just because of this very rich development that pakad [in the kal form] is today a beggar word; hardly anyone uses it in ordinary conversation. This word reveals the truth of the rabbinic dictum "If you grasp too much, you grasp nothing."

The hifil though, is frequently used in the sense of "to entrust." Pekuda - command, pakid - officer, and pikadon - a deposit - are also in active use.

Horowitz's book was published in 1960, so some of the meanings of the words he mentioned have changed in more recent Hebrew. For example, pakid now usually means "clerk," pikud means "command" in the military sense (like the Home Front Command - Pikud HaOref  פיקוד העורף), and tafkid usually means "role, position, task." Another military term is mifaked מפקד - "commander."

While providing many of the same meanings, Klein suggests a different etymology. He says the original meaning was probably "to miss." In English the verb "to miss" can mean both "to fail to hit" and "to long for someone." The first sense is reflected in nifkad - "not present," but that same soldier is also being looked for, perhaps longed for, and that provides many of the other meanings, where pakad means "to attend to, to visit, to observe." From there the other meanings of "to appoint," "to number," and "to command" developed.

Sunday, December 20, 2020


A number of years ago, I discussed the root סכן and the relate words misken, sakana and sochen. One of the words I mentioned was מסוכן mesukan:

The familiar word sakana סכנה - "danger" does not appear in the Tanach (it appears frequently in Rabbinic Hebrew). But it does appear as a nifal verb once in Kohelet 10:9  יסכן - "will be harmed". In Rabbinic Hebrew we find the piel form, meaning "to expose to danger". Derivatives include sikun סיכון - "risk" and misukan מסוכן - which in the Talmud meant "in danger" but by Medieval Hebrew meant "dangerous".

Recently, I realized that I never actually explained why the meaning of mesukan would change from "endangered" to "dangerous." 

Not knowing the answer, I looked in my books and my online sources, and couldn't find any real discussion of the topic. So I did something I haven't done for a while - I wrote to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Anyone can submit a question here (in Hebrew), and they're very generous with their time and provide comprehensive answers.

A few days later, I got an answer, which I will summarize here.

The word mesukan appears in the "passive" form in Talmudic literature. For example we find a בהמה מסוכנת behema mesukenet - a sick animal, in danger of dying, in the mishna (Beitza 3:3). In the Tosefta ( Toharot 6:7) there is mention of a sick person, referred to as mesukan. In this  literature, only people or animals are called mesukan.

Around the beginning of the 12th century, the meaning of mesukan expanded, and began to refer to things that can affect people, and as such took on the meaning of "dangerous." Rashi (Avoda Zara 28a) describes an injury as being mesukan, and Ibn Ezra (on Devarim 21:8) talks about roads that are mesukan

However, this new meaning was not used to refer to people or animals. When applied to them, mesukan still meant "endangered."

At the end of the 18th century, the meaning of mesukan expanded further. It began to be applied to animals, and then eventually to people as well. In modern usage, the sense of "endangered" has almost completely disappeared, and only "dangerous" remains.

This change in meaning can be seen in how it appears in dictionaries. In the Ben Yehuda dictionary (1928-1929), mesukan has both definitions, with "endangered" coming before "dangerous." In later dictionaries, such as Even Shoshan (1951), the order is reversed, reflecting the change in usage.

What was the reason for this semantic shift?

Two suggestions were offered.

One is a natural, internal development in the language, where passive verbs take on an active meaning. Examples given were the word זכור in Tehilim 103:14 (he "remembers" in the active sense), נשוי in Bava Batra 79a (a tree actively bearing fruit), and also the phrase mekubal ani מקובל אני - "I have accepted."

While these occurrences happened earlier, perhaps the change in mesukan followed the same process.

The second suggestion was influence from Arabic, where the similar word makufun can mean both "frightened" and "scary."

So perhaps one, or both, of those two pushed the word mesukan into the modern meaning of "dangerous."

Sunday, December 06, 2020

gambit and ganav

Here's one I wouldn't have ever thought of. 

"Gambit" is a ploy or strategy, used to gain an advantage.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the origin is in Latin:

"chess opening in which a pawn or piece is risked for advantage later," 1650s, gambett, from Italian gambetto, literally "a tripping up" (as a trick in wrestling), from gamba "leg," from Late Latin gamba (see gambol (n.)). Applied to chess openings in Spanish in 1561 by Ruy Lopez, who traced it to the Italian word, but the form in Spanish generally was gambito, which led to French gambit, which has influenced the English spelling of the word. Broader sense of "opening move meant to gain advantage" in English is recorded from 1855.

However, others suggest a Semitic origin. For example, Klein writes:

French, from Spanish gambito, from Arabic janbi, 'lateral', from janb, 'side' (whence janaba, 'he put aside'), which is relate to Aramaic-Syriac gabh, gabba, 'side', Hebrew ganabh, Aram.-Syr. genabh, 'he stole', literally 'he put aside', Heb. gannabh, 'thief'.

While Klein doesn't mention it here, Kaddari does say that ganav גנב can also mean "to put aside, remove." In fact, he lists this meaning as the first entry in his dictionary, indicating that this is the original meaning, as found in this verse:

יִהְיוּ כְּתֶבֶן לִפְנֵי־רוּחַ וּכְמֹץ גְּנָבַתּוּ סוּפָה׃

Let them become like straw in the wind, like chaff carried off [genavto] by a storm. (Iyov 21:18)

This book goes one step further, and says that the Hebrew word for "back" - גב gav also derives from the same root, because the back is "still a half of the body."  Klein, however, says that gav comes from a different root - גבב, meaning "something curved."