Sunday, July 11, 2021


The last post was discussing the word dfus דפוס - "printing," and how it derives from the Greek typos, meaning "type." At the end, I noted that the verb hidpis הדפיס means (perhaps surprisingly) "to print", not "to type." So today let's look at the Hebrew word meaning "to type."

In Hebrew, hiklid הקליד means "he typed", haklada הקלדה is typing, and mikledet מקלדת means "keyboard." This root קלד, has a more interesting story than I expected.

To understand the background, we should focus on the last of the three words I mentioned above: mikledet. Even if you weren't familiar with the Hebrew word, did you ever wonder why a keyboard is called that? The buttons you press when you type aren't actually "keys"...

But if you think about a similar device upon which you press all your fingers, you might be able to understand the association better. That device is the piano, with its 88 keys. And in fact, long before a keyboard referred to a device for typing on a computer, it was used to describe the set of keys used to play pianos, organs and other similar musical instruments.

The word key originally meant "an instrument for opening locks," as it does today. So how did it come to be used for the levers of the piano?

There are a number of different theories. The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions has the following passage in their entry for key:

The musical sense originally was "tone, note" (mid-15c.). In music theory, the sense developed 17c. to "sum of the melodic and harmonic relationships in the tones of a scale," also "melodic and harmonic relationships centering on a given tone." Probably this is based on a translation of Latin clavis "key," used by Guido for "lowest tone of a scale," or French clef (see clef; also see keynote). Sense of "mechanism on a musical instrument operated by the player's fingers" is from c. 1500, probably also suggested by uses of clavis. OED says this use "appears to be confined to Eng[lish]." First of organs and pianos, by 1765 of wind instruments; transferred to telegraphy by 1837 and later to typewriters (1876).

We see from here that "key" developed into two different meanings. In addition to the mechanism in musical instruments, it also took another musical meaning: "a group of notes based on a particular note and comprising a scale."

What isn't clear from the Online Etymology Dictionary is if one meaning of key arose from the other. Some say that the earlier meaning, "tone, note" led to the sense of the mechanisms used to play those notes. They also point out that the tone was called a "key" because it opened the scale. The word "keynote" preserves this sense, as it is the first (lowest) note of the scale.

Others say that the two meanings arose independently, and that piano keys were so called because the way they were designed and assembled was similar to a lock and key. For example, this site shows how ancient organs were made by "adapting keys with levers."

Whatever the origin, the meaning stuck, and in English keys in that sense are used to refer the things pressed on both a piano and a typewriter (and keyboard).

As Yaakov Etsion points out in this article, Hebrew was also faced with the question of what to call the keys of a piano. That in itself isn't so remarkable - in Modern Hebrew there were multitudes of words that needed coining. What is uncommon here, is that Hebrew already had a word for keys of musical instruments. When David returned the Ark to Israel, the verse says:

וְדָוִד  וְכׇל־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מְשַׂחֲקִים לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה בְּכֹל עֲצֵי בְרוֹשִׁים וּבְכִנֹּרוֹת וּבִנְבָלִים וּבְתֻפִּים וּבִמְנַעַנְעִים וּבְצֶלְצֱלִים׃ 

Meanwhile, David and all the House of Israel danced before the LORD to [the sound of] all kinds of cypress wood [instruments], with lyres, harps, timbrels, sistrums, and cymbals. (Shmuel II 6:5)

The word translated here as "sistrums" (other translations have "rattles" or "coronets") is מנענעים mina'anim. At some point (and without any direct evidence to the contrary), the mina'anea became associated with the keys of the piano and organ. But this was a difficult word to pronounce, and in 1955 the Academy of the Hebrew Language came up with an alternate word for keys of the piano: klidim קלידים.

Why this word? Because it was based an archaic word for "keys" - aklida אקלידא. It is found in Talmudic literature, for example in Sanhedrin 113a:

בעי רחמי והבו ליה אקלידא דמטרא

[Elijah] prayed for mercy and they gave him the key (aklida) to rainfall

Of course, Hebrew already had a very common word for key: mafteach מפתח. But by adopting an obscure word instead, there would be no chance that someone might mix up the words for piano keys and house keys.

Klein points out that aklida, an Aramaic word, derives from the Greek kleida, accusative of kleis (= key). Those Greek words have given us a number of words in English, including "clavicle" (literally a "small key", based on the shape of the bone) and perhaps Cleopatra, which may have meant "key to the fatherland." The Latin cognate, clavis (also meaning "key") gave us words like enclave (enclosed, "locked in"), as well as the musical terms clef (parallel to keynote, as we discussed above) and clavichord (a medieval musical instrument, played with a type of keys).

The Academy's recommendation to use klid קליד for "piano key" was widely accepted, although not without opposition. The linguist Yitzchak Avineri wrote in a 1958 column, that while he did not object to adopting foreign words when necessary, this was not the case here, since Hebrew already had a word for piano key, the "biblical" mina'anea (in quotes because I haven't seen any proof that it was anything like a piano.)  Not only did klid have Greek origins (as compared to Semitic ones), even the loan translation was from English, a foreign language that invented the idea that pianos had 88 "keys." He concluded the column by saying that "this is not the way to expand the language."

However, language doesn't always listen to the experts. Klidim became the accepted term for piano keys, and a keyboard - both musical and for typing - is a mikledet. However, this new root did not take over fully. The keys of a piano are klidim, but the keys on a computer keyboard (and typewriter) are makashim מקשים (makash in singular, from the root נקש, "to strike.") And while one is maklid on a keyboard, that verb is reserved for typing. On the piano, one is poret al haklidim פורט על הקלידים (from a Biblical root meaning "to play a musical instrument", as found in Amos 6:5). 

So perhaps Avineri would have some comfort in the fact that at least in some contexts those ancient Hebrew roots persevered.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

dfus, tofes and tipus

As I've written before, I'm a major podcast listener, and am always looking for podcasts that discuss language, particularly the Hebrew language.

Recently, I came across a podcast devoted to the nuts and bolts of the Hebrew language, called Kululusha. It's in Hebrew, and the host, Yiram Netanyahu (no relation), interviews experts on Hebrew language and linguistics, including some people I've quoted here frequently. 

In the latest episode, he had a conversation with the linguist Dr. Gabriel Birnbaum, about the influence of foreign words on Hebrew. It was a very interesting discussion, and I recommend that any of you who can follow a talk like that in Hebrew to listen. 

A lot of the foreign words that Dr. Birnbaum mentioned will be familiar to readers of Balashon. But there was one that he mentioned briefly that I've been meaning to write about for a while - the Greek typos. As noted in the podcast, that one Greek word gave us three distinct words in Hebrew: dfus דפוס, tofes טופס and tifus טיפוס. Let's take a look.

The Greek word typos is the origin of the English word "type":

late 15c., "symbol, emblem," from Latin typus "figure, image, form, kind," from Greek typos "a blow, dent, impression, mark, effect of a blow; figure in relief, image, statue; anything wrought of metal or stone; general form, character; outline, sketch," from root of typtein "to strike, beat," from PIE *tup-, variant of root *(s)teu- (1) "to push, stick, knock, beat" (see steep (adj.)).

Extended 1713 to printing blocks of metal or wood with letters or characters carved on their faces, usually in relief, adapted for use in letterpress printing. The meaning "general form or character of some kind, class" is attested in English by 1843, though the corresponding words had that sense in Latin and Greek. 

As in English, the Greek typos had both the the sense of "to strike" and "a form, kind." (I would not have guessed, as I type on my keyboard, that the earlier meaning was to "to strike.") The Hebrew words reflect those different meanings as well.

Dfus is closest to the sense of a "dent, impression". It is found in early Rabbinic Hebrew, such as Mishna Menachot 11:1, where it refers to a baking mold that was used to prepare the offering of the shtei halechem (the two loaves of bread), brought on Shavuot. While many editions of the Talmud have the word written in the form familiar today - dfus דפוס, other manuscripts preserve what is likely the original spelling - tfus טפוס. The letters "t" and "d" both produce dental stop sounds, and just saying them out loud makes it understandable how tfus became dfus. After the Talmudic meanings of "form, model, mold", in modern Hebrew dfus took on the sense of "print, printing, press." The related verb, hidpis הדפיס means "to print" and a madpeset מדפסת is a "printer."

Tofes טפס, in Talmudic Hebrew, meant the standard, boilerplate lines in a document (in contrast with the toref תורף, which refers to the specific details of that document, like the dates, names, etc.) Today it means any kind of form to be filled out.

Tipus is the most abstract of the three, meaning "type, kind, class." In modern Hebrew, the adjective tipusi טיפוסי - "typical" (which also derives from typos) was added. In Hebrew slang, a tipus is an unusual character. 

Curious about the Hebrew word for the verb, "to type"? Then keep an eye out for the next post...

Monday, June 28, 2021


The English word tripe has two definitions:

1 : stomach tissue especially of a ruminant (such as an ox) used as food
2 : something poor, worthless, or offensive

For me, the second definition was more familiar than the first - but that may be because I don't eat red meat.

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this origin for tripe:

c. 1300, from Old French tripe "guts, intestines, entrails used as food" (13c.), of unknown origin, perhaps via Spanish tripa from Arabic therb "suet" [Klein, Barnhart]. Applied contemptuously to persons (1590s), then to anything considered worthless, foolish, or offensive (1892).

This book gives it a similar etymology, saying it comes from the Arabic tharb, meaning a "thin layer of fat lining the intestines."

I haven't seen explicit proof, but I think tharb as "fat" may be cognate with the Hebrew root רבב, meaning "to become many, much, great." As we saw in our discussion of ribah, Klein notes that the related Arabic verb rabba means "to make thick or dense." 

The Arabic-English Lexicon, in its entry for the related Arabic verb taraba, says that it originally meant "the removing of the tharb, i.e. the fat that forms the integument of the stomach of a ruminant", and then associatively became "the act of blaming, reproving, and punishing or chastising for an offence or a crime."  As we noted in the entry for the Hebrew word chitui, sometimes a verb that derives from a noun refers to the removal of that noun. In this case, the verb taraba meant the removal of the tharb

While the fat itself might have had a positive association, the noun tharb also took on the negative sense of "blame, reproof, reproach." This may be the reason that Muhammad changed the name of the Arabian city Yathrib to Medina, as we mentioned in our discussion of the Hebrew word medina.

** Update:

Thank you to reader Shalom for pointing this out:

The Aramaic translation of the Biblical חלב (fat) is תרב.
He then shared Jastrow's entry for תרב, which gives examples of terav being used as a translation for chelev, and also provides a cognate with the Hebrew root רב, "to increase."

Monday, June 21, 2021

akhu and oasis

In Pharaoh's famous dream, he was standing by the river, 

"when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass." (Bereshit 41:2)

The word translated here as "reed grass" is akhu אחו in Hebrew. Other translations include "marsh grass," "marshland," or "meadow." The word only appears a few more times in the Bible - once later in the chapter, when Pharaoh retells his dream (41:18), and in Hoshea 13:15 ("For though he flourish among reeds" - in the plural form אחים achim) and Iyov 8:11 ("Can papyrus thrive without marsh? Can rushes grow without water?).

Due to its first appearance in Pharaoh's dream, it should not be too surprising that it has an Egyptian origin. R. Aryeh Kaplan writes, "Achu in the Hebrew, from the Egyptian Akhi." Sarna, in the the JPS commentary on Genesis, similarly notes:

Hebrew 'ahu, from an Egyptian loan word that originally meant the land flooded by the Nile, and then came to be used for pastureland in general. From Egyptian it passed into Hebrew and other Semitic languages.

From those other Semitic languages, we  may get a familiar word in English. Stahl, in his entry for the Arabic word waha, says that it also derives from the Coptic (Ancient Egyptian) word that gave Hebrew akhu. In Arabic waha means "oasis", which a lush meadow could would certainly have been seen as in the desert.

Stahl goes on to say that the word "oasis" itself also came from the same Egyptian root, via Greek. An early mention of the Egyptian origin of "oasis" can be found in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. A full etymology is offered by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"fertile spot in a desert, where there is a spring or well and more or less vegetation," originally in reference to the Libyan desert, 1610s, from French oasis (18c.) and directly from Late Latin oasis, from Greek oasis, probably from Hamitic (compare Coptic wahe, ouahe "oasis," properly "dwelling place," from ouih "dwell"). The same Egyptian source produced Arabic wahah. Figurative sense of "any fertile place in the midst of a waste" is by 1800.

I found it interesting that today, Al-Waha refers to "an immersion-based Arabic-language camp for students." I suppose that's similar to the ulpan for learning Hebrew. I can certainly imagine that any place dedicated to learning a new language would be a kind of oasis...

Sunday, June 13, 2021

kriyat yam suf

I recently came across an early draft of the speech my son prepared for his bar mitzva, ten years ago this month. It was rather nostalgic to see it again. And while I enjoyed hearing his points, I was actually more fascinated with the typos and misspellings in this first draft. On the one hand, they prove that he actually wrote the speech himself, which was impressive for a 13 year old. But it also was cute to enter the mind of a kid who grew up in Israel, spoke English at home, and tried to straddle both worlds when writing his speech.

One of the most curious phrases he used was "the tearing of the Red Sea." Normally, in English we say "the splitting of the Red Sea." But he directly translated the Hebrew phrase kriyat yam suf קריעת ים סוף. The verb kriya, from the root קרע, means "to tear" and so in the literal sense, his translation to English was logical.

But this actually brings us to a more substantial question. Why do we call it kriyat yam suf? In the Bible, the verbs used to describe the splitting of the sea are baka בקע (as in Shemot 14:16, 21, Tehillim 78:13 and Nechemiah 9:11), or less frequently, gazar גזר (as in Tehillim 136:13). Both roots mean to split, with various nuances. So why did Rabbinic Hebrew (like in the Dayenu song found in the Haggadah) prefer a different Biblical root: kara?

I found a detailed discussion of the question in this article

"'קריעת ים סוף' כמשקפת תהליכי לשון" מאת ציון עוקשי פורסם בכתב העת דעת לשון – מחקרים בלשון העברית לתקופותיה, מכללת אפרתה, ירושלים תשס"ח

The author, Tzion Okashi, focuses primarily on the distinction between baka and kara, and suggests two possible reasons for the later use of kara. One might be from Aramaic influence, as is frequently found in words adopted in Rabbinic Hebrew. He point out that the Aramaic translations of the Bible use the root בזע to translate both בקע and קרע, which may have led to the shift of one usage to the other.

The other answer I found more interesting. He says this is due to a change in the perception of the nature of the event. While the Torah uses the word baka, that is generally applied to the splitting of a solid, hard object, like a rock or a block of wood. That type of splitting can not be repaired or restored. The action of kriya, however, is associated with the tearing of softer items like garments (as is practiced, for example, in Jewish mourning.) According to this theory, those who preferred to refer to kriyat yam suf visualized the sea closing up on itself after the split. The split was not permanent, just as clothing can be repaired, or a zipper can close the opening in a garment. Okashi writes that the Tanach chose to focus on the force of the miracle, which split the sea as one would break open a block of wood, while the Sages preferred the image of the water letting Israel pass through, only to close upon the pursuing Egyptians.

So it seems that even at that early age, our son somehow picked up on the same message the Sages did when they chose their phrasing. Quite impressive, I must say!

Sunday, May 23, 2021


The Hebrew word for jam or jelly, ribah ריבה, was coined by the father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. On that, everyone agrees. However, there has been debate over how he came up with the word, and if it was a good choice. Let's look at its history.

As Elon Gilad writes, the first mention of ribah was in a column by Ben-Yehuda in his newspaper, HaZvi, in 1888. To show that this was not a coinage out of whole cloth, he titled his piece "A new word that is old." Gilad summarizes Ben-Yehuda's justification for choosing the word:

In the article Ben-Yehuda set out to show how he found the word riba in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 7:9) in a passage concerning the frying of a dish call tofini. What exactly this tofini is is not at all clear, but that’s besides the point. We find a bunch of rabbis seemingly debating the recipe, when one of them says tofinei riba. Ben-Yehuda acknowledges that commentators wrote that this was a copying error and that originally the text said raka, which means “soft” - meaning that the dough was half done.

Ben-Yehuda concludes that the word riba comes from the root r-b-b and that this root means, as it means in Arabic, something condensed by heating. It's a root that gave Arabic the word murabab - jam. “Thus, we gained a new word that is old for a kind of sweets, for the kinds of fruit cooked in sugar, in honey, and it is riba,” Ben-Yehuda concluded.

However, looking at the original text of Ben-Yehuda's column (page 4), I think Gilad's explanation could use some clarification. Here's what Ben-Yehuda wrote:

My understanding is that Ben Yehuda claimed that those who felt the text should read raka רכה were in error. He relies on the parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 50b) which has the word with a bet - raba רבה. He relies on Rashi's explanation on the passage in Menachot, which says that raba means "a lot", so it should be baked more than once.

But then he goes on to reject that approach as well, and says that the word should be read as riba ריבה, not raba, according to the the text in the Jerusalem Talmud. And for this he quotes the Arabic cognate. 

As Klein writes, the Arabic verb rabba means "he reared, increased, originally 'he made thick or dense,'" and rubb means "thickened juice of fruit", which led to mirabb - "jam, preserved fruit."

And so Ben Yehuda concludes that this is how he understands the Talmudic passage - the tofini is not repeatedly cooked, but rather made thick by cooking. 

Ben-Yehuda's coinage, and particularly his interpretation of the text in the Talmud, aroused the ire of another pillar of modern Hebrew - the writer S.Y. Agnon. In his 1943 novel Shevuat Emunim ("Betrothed"), Agnon writes about pre-World War I Jaffa, and says that in the evenings they would drink tea and eat preserves, and then adds:

If some intellectual were present, he would make fun of the hotel-keeper who had misunderstood a Talmudic word, and called fruit preserves 'jam.'

This was clearly a jab at Ben-Yehuda. Not only does Agnon say that it is a mistake to call preserves (for which he uses the older word mirkahat מרקחת), but he refers to him as a "hotel keeper." In the Hebrew, that phrase is baal hamalon בעל המלון. Ben-Yehuda was the author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and so could have been known as the baal hamilon בעל המילון (literally, "master of the dictionary.") But Agnon rejected Ben-Yehuda's switching raba for riba in the Talmudic passage, and made the same vowel switch back from milon to malon.

Many have also criticized Ben-Yehuda's rejection of the scholars who claimed that the word in Shekalim should be read raka. According to them, that word represents the more accurate texts of the passage (as well as the text in Menachot). And perhaps for that reason, when Ben-Yehuda's dictionary was published after his death, neither the entry for riba, nor the notes by Tur-Sinai mention the Shekalim passage at all, but rely entirely on the Arabic cognate, and other medieval Hebrew words based on the same root:

We've now shown Ben-Yehuda's original justification for choosing riba for jam, and the revised explanation in his dictionary. A third report, found often in Ultra-Orthodox circles (who in his lifetime and even today don't have much respect for Ben-Yehuda), attributes Ben-Yehuda with a poor understanding of basic Talmudic terminology. There are a few different versions, but they generally say that he read a passage like this:

"מאי ריבה? מיני מתיקה"

Mai ribah? Minei metika.

and from it coined the word ribah. If that were so, it would indeed be a gross misreading of the text. The phrase mai ribah is found in a number of Talmudic passages (for example Sotah 16b), and means, "What does it include?" This is because ריבה riba in this case literally means "an extension of scope, widening qualification". So while the passage really meant "What does [this case] include? Sweet things", Ben-Yehuda thought it meant "What is riba? Sweet things", and so used it to refer to jam.

The problem is not only as we've seen did Ben-Yehuda not use that passage as his reason for the coinage, but there is no such passage anywhere in Talmudic literature (nor is there for any of the variants of this story). It's rather ironic that people who are trying to make fun of Ben-Yehuda for not understanding the Talmud are actually proving their own ignorance instead. They should really leave the satire to people like Agnon...

Sunday, May 16, 2021

cameo and kamea

I was recently asked if there is a connection between the English word "cameo" and the Hebrew word קמיע kamea - "amulet." 

If that seems like a strange suggestion, perhaps you aren't familiar with the background of "cameo." While today it usually means "a small theatrical role usually performed by a well-known actor and often limited to a single scene," that's not the original sense. (Modern Hebrew also has hofa'at kamea הופעת קמע meaning a "cameo appearance, but that is a much more recent usage.) The original sense can be found in this entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

early 15c., kaadmaheu, camew, chamehieux and many other spellings (from early 13c. in Anglo-Latin), "engraving in relief upon a precious stone with two layers of colors" (such as onyx, agate, or shell) and done so as to utilize the effect of the colors, from Old French camaieu and directly from Medieval Latin cammaeus, which is of unknown origin, perhaps ultimately from Arabic qamaa'il "flower buds," or Persian chumahan "agate."

In 19c. also used of other raised, carved work on a miniature scale. Transferred sense of "small character or part that stands out from other minor parts" in a play, etc., is from 1928, from earlier meaning "short literary sketch or portrait" (1851), a transferred sense from cameo silhouettes. A cameotype (1864) was a small, vignette daguerreotype mounted in a jeweled setting.

Since cameo originally meant a type of jewelry, that's much closer to the sense of "amulet." Yet, none of the suggestions mentioned in this entry can be connected to kamea. (I haven't been able to find any Hebrew cognate to the qamaa'il referenced above. In fact, the claims is disputed entirely in this article, saying that qamaa'il is not found in Arabic dictionaries.)

However, that doesn't mean a connection isn't possible. Let's first look at the origin of kamea, to see if it can bring us closer to cameo. (Ben Yehuda points out that the original pronunciation was kamia, but the transition to kamea may have been from the Italian "cameo.") Here's Klein's entry:

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

email subscriptions update

As I mentioned in an earlier post, FeedBurner, the service that provided email subscriptions to Balashon, will be ending that service in a few months.

I've set up a new service with Mailchimp, to provide the same option of receiving Balashon posts by email. 

If anyone would like to subscribe that way, you can easily do so by entering your email address in the box on the right margin of this page, under Subscribe to Balashon by email.

For those who were already subscribed via FeedBurner, I've migrated your subscriptions to Mailchimp. If you do not wish to receive those emails, you can easily unsubscribe by clicking the unsubscribe from this list link at the bottom of every email.

Thanks for your patience during this transition, and I hope to have some new posts with regular Balashon content up soon!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

still working on the email subscriptions

I'm still working on getting the new email subscription service working, so I need to do some additional test posts.

To make this a little more interesting, I'll provide some links about other things I've been working on.

For over a year, I've been writing for 929 - the project that studies a chapter of Bible each day. 

You can read my posts, which generally talk about words, here.

I also write for HaMizrachi, a magazine with articles about Torah and other subjects, printed around the holidays. Again, I write about words, and while there isn't an index of all my articles, my latest one - for Yom HaAtzmaut - is here.

Aside from writing about words, I also like to write about the Bible and Jewish thought. I've published in Tradition, Lehrhaus, Hakirah, and JBQ. I've put everything I've published on my profile. Feel free to browse and let me know what you think.

Ok, that's good for now, I probably should save some more in case I need additional posts like this...

Saturday, April 17, 2021

changes for email subscribers

Just a little maintenance here. Feedburner, the service that provided email subscriptions to Balashon, will be ending that service in a few months. So I am in the process of investigating new options and will hopefully migrate all subscribers soon. 

If you don't subscribe by email, you can ignore this message. Thanks!

Monday, March 29, 2021

mashal and moshel

The 929 Project, which covers a chapter of the Tanakh every day over a 3.5 year cycle, will be starting the book of Mishlei (Proverbs) soon. Since I write a weekly entry for 929, I thought I would take the opportunity here to look into the word mashal משל - the source of the book Mishlei.

In the Bible, the root משל has two meanings - "to rule" and "to resemble, to make like, to speak in parables." The first sense, to rule, appears 81 times as a verb, and also has noun forms, like moshel מושל - "ruler. governor" and memshala ממשלה - meaning "rule, dominion" in Biblical Hebrew, and "government" in Modern Hebrew.

The second meaning occurs 17 times as a verb, and an additional 39 as a noun, generally translated as "proverb" (giving the name to the biblical book.)

Is there a connection between the two meanings? Many older sources do make a connection. Here are a few examples:

Rabbi Hirsch, on Bereshit 4:9, writes that the basic meaning of mashal is "to declare what something is and should be, to give its character and designation. Hence: to command, to rule. […] Hence, also the Proverbs of Shlomo: saying which tell us what men and things are and should be. So in general. But hence mashal also means quite specially such a saying or sentence whose meaning refers not to the things actually described in it, but they are used metaphorically to refer to some general fact or teaching, to describe the character or designation of something else, i.e. a parable."

Jastrow has the original meaning as "to handle, to touch" (he brings the example of Yoma 46a - "the fire had taken hold of them.")  That sense developed into a) to attend, manage, control, and b) something tangible, substantial, plausible. From there it developed to "a truth substantiated by an illustration, wise saying, fable, allegory, example."

Steinberg suggests that the earlier, common meaning was "to straighten, to organize." This organization can both be done by a ruler, or by an orator, who arranges two concepts in a parable.

Gesenius, in his dictionary, writes: "Learned men have made many attempts to reconcile the significations of making like and ruling […] I have no doubt but from the signification of making like, is derived from that of judging, forming an opinion […] which is nearly allied to the notion of giving sentence, ordering, ruling."

However, more recent scholars have begun to doubt that the two meanings share a common origin. Klein, for example, lists them as two separate entries. For the meaning "to rule," he provides one cognate: the Phoenician משל. For the sense "to be like, resemble, to speak in parables," he offers a number of Semitic cognates:

Aramaic מְתַל (= was like, resembled), Syriac מְתַל (= he compared; he spoke in parables), Akkadian mashālu (= to be like), Arabic mathala (= was like, resembled, imitated), mithl (= a thing similar, resemblance, likeness), Ethiopian masala (= became like).

The substitution of the "sh" for "t/th" in many of these languages, but only for this meaning, could indicate a separate origin. (The Aramaic amatla אמתלא - "excuse, pretext" derives from the cognate מתל, and has entered Hebrew as אמתלה, with the same meaning.)

But as Prof. Chaim Cohen argued in this comprehensive article (English summary here, pp. 372-373), this may not be the case. He writes that "while a majority of Biblical scholars today derive the term משל from a primary verb מש"ל 'to be like' […] this view, despite many attempts to bolster it with additional evidence, has never been sufficiently compelling to win overall scholarly approval." He goes on to claim that the original meaning of the noun mashal is "saying" and the verb means "to express, relate." 

This understanding fits the book of Proverbs well. While many of the Proverbs are indeed parables - for example, "A passerby who gets embroiled in someone else’s quarrel is like one who seizes a dog by its ears." (Mishlei 26:17), others are simply sayings without a metaphor: "Do not envy evil men; Do not desire to be with them" (Mishlei 24:1). 

So it could well be that the original meaning of mashal was "saying" and then later developed to the more specific type of saying - the parable.

If that's the case, perhaps we can make a connection to "ruling" after all. I did not see this mentioned in the sources I read, but there are other words in Hebrew that connect ruling to speaking - see my posts on nagid נגיד and amar אמר. It would not surprise me if mashal is an additional example.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

sutro and tzair

I grew up in San Francisco, and anyone from there will recognize the name Sutro. 

Sutro Tower is giant radio and TV antenna that can be seen from most places in the city. It sits on a hill between Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro, another place with the Sutro name.

In the Sutro Historic District, on the Pacific coast, you'll find Sutro Heights Park, and it once included the Sutro Baths. And there are other places with the Sutro name in the area.

All of these places were named for Adolph Sutro (1830-1898), the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco1. He was a collector of books, and when I lived there I heard he had a manuscript with the signature of Maimonides (now housed in Sutro Library of course).  I never visited that exhibit - maybe I'll try on my next visit.

I recently learned that this pervasive word, Sutro, actually has Hebrew origins. According to this article, "the family name is probably a writing of the Aramaic zutra." And indeed, the Hebrew entry for the catalog of his books writes Sutro as זוטרא (zutra).

The Aramaic word zutra means "small." From it we get in modern Hebrew zutar - זוטר, an adjective meaning "junior" or "minor." Klein writes that the root of zutra - זטר - is related to the root זער - "to be small", which in turn is related to the root צער - also meaning "to be small, insignificant." This last root gives us the word tzair צעיר - "young" and tzoer צוער, which appears once in the Bible (Zechariah 13:7) as "shepherd boy," and today means "cadet."

Another meaning of the root צער - "sadness, suffering" only appears in post-biblical Hebrew. In the hitpael form - הצטער - it literally means "to feel pain, remorse", and is used to say "I'm sorry" - אני מצטער ani mitztaer.

According to Klein, the two roots are related. One who is treated caused to suffer, treated shamefully, is "belittled" or "made insignificant." Yaakov Etsion, in this article, agrees that the roots are related, but suggests instead that it's not others making the mitztaer feel small, but the one suffering acts as if they are contracting, reduced in size, as opposed to someone comfortable who can relax and spread out.

While Adolph Sutro's name may have meant "small," his legacy in San Francisco is anything but insignificant, and the landmarks bearing his name are the tallest in the city.

1 I have been informed that actually, the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco was Washington Bartlett. Bartlett later converted to Christianity, but was Jewish during his term as mayor.  

Monday, March 01, 2021

minaret and menorah

The word "minaret", meaning the tower of a mosque, is cognate with the Hebrew menorah מנורה. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"slender, lofty turret of a mosque," typically rising by stages and having one or more projecting balconies around it, 1680s, from French minaret, from a Turkish pronunciation of Arabic manarah, manarat "minaret," also "lamp, lighthouse," which is related to manar "candlestick," a derivative of nar "fire;" compare Hebrew ner "lamp" (see menorah).

Menorah was the term for the lampstand with seven lamps first established for the roaming Tabernacle, and then later in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was famously lit again by the Maccabees, when the Temple was rededicated, after the Greeks had defiled it. This is commemorated in the holiday of Chanukah. During that holiday, a lamp is lit with additional candles every night, reaching eight candles on the last night, plus one extra (ninth) candle used to light the others. 

To distinguish between the menorah used in the Temple and what was lit in homes on Chanukah, traditionally the latter was called menorat chanukah מנורת חנוכה, although some people used menorah for both. Sephardic and Balkan Jews used the term chanukiya חנוכייה (with the accent on the second to last syllable - chanuKIya), and that term was introduced into modern Hebrew by Hemda Ben Yehuda (Eliezer Ben Yehuda's wife). 

Today in Israel menorah refers to the lamp in the Temple, the symbol of the State of Israel (which was modeled on the biblical menorah) and for "lamp" in general. Chanukiya (with the accent on the last symbol) is used for the lamp lit on Chanukah.

Menorah derives from the root  נור, and other words related to lamps also come from the same source. Ner נר means "candle" and nurah נורה means "bulb."

Another related word is sanver - "to blind." It was back formed from sanverim סנורים - "blindness" (as found in Bereshit 19:11). Klein provides the following etymology for sanverim:

According to some scholars, euphemistic use of Akka. shunwuru (= to give light). According to others סַנְוֵרִים is formed from the Siph‘el of נור (= to give light), used euphemistically.

 A sister root to נור is נהר, meaning "to shine." It is found in only a few biblical verses (e.g. Yeshaya 60:5 and Iyov 3:4). But its use in Aramaic is much more common. And just as sanverim means blindness and may have euphemistic origins, the term used in Hebrew for "euphemism" also comes from a phrase meaning blindness: סגי נהור sagi-nahor. It literally means someone with "(more than) enough light", a euphemism for a blind person. That classic case of euphemism has been extended to all euphemisms, which are known as לשון סגי נהור lashon sagi nahor.

Monday, February 08, 2021

mafia and hiftzir

There are many theories as to the etymology of the word "mafia." One of the leading ones says it comes from the Arabic marfud - "rejected":

1875, from Italian Mafia "Sicilian secret society of criminals" (the prevailing sense outside Sicily), earlier, "spirit of hostility to the law and its ministers." A member is a mafioso (1870), fem. mafiosa, plural mafiosi, and this may be the older word in this sense. Arabic is often cited as the ultimate source (the Arabs ruled Sicily for more than two centuries in the Middle Ages), but which Arabic word is a matter of disagreement.

The immediate source of mafioso, then, would be 19c. Sicilian mafiusu, "signifying a bully, arrogant but also fearless, enterprising, and proud" [Gambetta], who favors as the Arabic source an adjective from marfud "rejected."

According to this sourcemarfud ("rejected") became the Sicilian marpiuni ("swindler") and from there to mafiusu

As often happens when I read etymologies of English words with Semitic roots, I wonder if there is a cognate in Hebrew. Well, this is one I would never have expected.


To find a Hebrew word related to marfud, we need to look a seemingly unrelated Hebrew root: פצר. It appears in the Bible seven times - six of which are in the kal form - patzar. In all of those cases it means "to implore, to beg earnestly." Modern Hebrew uses the hifil form of the verb, hiftzir, to mean "implore" as well. Klein writes that it is a secondary form of the root פרץ - "to push, to break through." That root can also mean "to spread, to extend."

This sense of "spreading, extension" is how classic commentators understood the use of פצר in its seventh use, in Shmuel I 15:23. The prophet Shmuel is castigating Shaul, the king, and says:

כִּי חַטַּאת־קֶסֶם מֶרִי וְאָוֶן וּתְרָפִים הַפְצַר

This is a notoriously difficult phrase to explain. It ends with the words utrafim haftzar (our root). Rashi says it means "an addition", and in that light, ArtScroll translates the phrase as:

"For rebelliousness is like the sin of sorcery, and verbosity [haftzar] is like the iniquity of idolatry"

However, modern translations, like the JPS have a different interpretation. They offer:

"For rebellion is like the sin of divination; defiance [haftzar], like the iniquity of teraphim"

Translating haftzar as "defiance" provides symmetry with the first half of the phrase, where everyone agrees that meri means "rebelliousness." And there is linguistic support for this translation as well. 

David Yellin wrote in an essay, "Forgotten Meanings of Hebrew Roots in the Bible" (published here, and quoted by Stahl in his etymological dictionary of Arabic) that this use of the root פצר is unrelated to the other six, and based on cognates with other Semitic languages should be translated as "defiance." One of those cognates is the Arabic rafad - "to reject," which is the source of our word marfud above. 

How did he get from fatzar to rafad? Through a number of phonetic shifts. First of all, the Hebrew tz sound can become d in Arabic (for example the Hebrew רמץ remetz becomes ramida in Arabic, the source of the month Ramadan.) And then through metathesis, fadar became rafad.


Quite a journey, no? So how can you remember that "mafia" and fatzar are cognate? Just think of a mafioso imploring someone to not be defiant...

Sunday, January 24, 2021


A Spanish word that has entered English slang is loco - "crazy." The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following origin:

"mad, crazy," 1844, American English, from Spanish loco (adj.) "insane," of uncertain origin, perhaps from Arabic lauqa, fem. of 'alwaq "fool, crazy person."

The American Heritage Dictionary goes a bit further in their entry for the Semitic root lwq:

 Arabic root, to soften. loco, perhaps from Arabic lawqā, feminine singular of alwaq, bent, foolish, from lāqa, to soften.

Could this Arabic root have a Hebrew cognate? I believe there might be one.

Post-biblical Hebrew has the root לקה, meaning "to strike, to flog." The biblical equivalent is נכה - "to best, strike." The root לקה gives us the noun מלקות malkut (sometimes pronounced malkot) for "punishment by lashes," whereas the root נכה provides מכה maka, in plural מכות makkot. This last word is the name of the Talmudic tractate Makkot, which deals with the laws of punishment by lashes, and within it frequently uses the synonym malkot. (For more on the confusion between the two terms, see here.)

However, this is not the only meaning of לקה. Klein offers the following meanings: "to be stricken, be smitten, be flogged, be scourged; to be affected with disease; to be eclipsed." (This last meaning gives us the Hebrew term for "eclipse" - ליקוי likui.) 

In his Arukh HaShalem, Kohut writes that the essence of the root means "to be softened, beaten," and mentions the Arabic root that means "to soften." So it seems we have our cognate. As proof, The Arukh (the dictionary published about 800 years earlier upon which Kohut wrote his supplement) quotes a Talmudic passage (Yevamot 80b), which mentions someone who has שער לקוי se'ar lakui. The Arukh says that means he has "soft hair" (and Rashi agrees in his commentary.)

For some reason, there are many fast food restaurants called El Pollo Loco, including Israeli equivalents. While they say it means "crazy chicken," I think "softened chicken" actually sounds more appetizing...

Sunday, January 17, 2021


The word for gerbil, the small rodent, has Semitic origins:

1849, gerbile, from French gerbille, from Modern Latin Gerbillus, the genus name, from gerbo, from Arabic yarbu. Earlier English form, jarbuah (1660s), was directly from Arabic.

Another rodent that I hadn't heard of before also gets its name from the same Arabic word - the jerboa. They aren't from the same genus or even family, but because both are small desert rodents, the Arabic name was also used:

small desert rodent, 1660s, Modern Latin, from Arabic jarbu "flesh of the loins," also the name of a small jumping rodent of North Africa. So called for the strong muscles of its hind legs.

The Arabic Etymological Dictionary finds cognates in other Semitic languages:

yarbu‘ : a rodent, jerboa [Akkadian arrabu, Syriac yarbu‘a, Ebla arrabu]

Is there also a connection to any Hebrew words? 

One possibility is that it's related to akhbar עכבר - "mouse." We discussed akhbar a few years ago, relying on the theory that it derives from the root כבר - "great." Those that connect yarbu to akhbar take a different route. I found that theory mentioned here, here, and here. While they don't map it out directly, my understanding is that the "kh/k" sound dropped out (perhaps easier to imagine knowing that it was also pronounced/spelled agbaru in Akkadian, since the g sound gets swallowed in the b sound), and then through metathesis it became arrabu

And while the Online Etymology Dictionary says the name of the rodent came from the strong leg muscles, the first source (an essay by Prof. Richard Steiner) posits that the root first meant "mouse" and then later meant "muscle," particularly the Achilles tendon, or hamstring. He points out that in other languages we also find the word for muscles deriving from the word for mouse, including English:

"contractible animal tissue consisting of bundles of fibers," late 14c., "a muscle of the body," from Latin musculus "a muscle," literally "a little mouse," diminutive of mus "mouse".

So called because the shape and movement of some muscles (notably biceps) were thought to resemble mice. The analogy was made in Greek, too, where mys is both "mouse" and "muscle," and its combining form gives the medical prefix myo-. Compare also Old Church Slavonic mysi "mouse," mysica "arm;" German Maus "mouse; muscle," Arabic 'adalah "muscle," 'adal "field mouse;" Cornish logodenfer "calf of the leg," literally "mouse of the leg." 

Steiner then goes on to suggest that other Hebrew words for muscle might derive from the same root, including ekev עקב - "heel" and arkuv ערקוב - "knee joint, hock."

There is another small rodent, which like the gerbil, is often kept as a pet - the hamster. The word hamster doesn't have a Semitic etymology, but the hamsters we're familiar with today do have a connection to Israel. In 1930 in Jerusalem, the zoologist Israel Aharoni successfully bred a pair of Syrian hamsters, and the hamster pets found today worldwide are descendants of his efforts.

Monday, January 04, 2021

etzel, atzil and asli

According to Klein, the Hebrew preposition etzel אצל means "by the side of, beside, near." Milon Morfix (a more recent resource) offers "at; in the possession of; for; (literary) near, close to."  As this article by the Hebrew Language Academy points out, the word is found in Biblical sources, with additional meanings added in the Talmudic and Medieval periods. Today, according to the article, the main usage is to describe something in the area or possession of a person. 

So if you were to say that a meeting was in Esther's house, you'd say it was babayit shel Ester בבית של אסתר. But if you wanted to say the meeting was "by Esther", you'd say it was etsel Ester אצל אסתר.

Klein says that etzel actually means "side," deriving from the root אצל meaning "lay aside, set apart, reserve, emanate." That root is used today in the hifil form he'etzil האציל - "to delegate" as in the phrase ha'atzal samchuyot האצלת סמכויות - "delegation of authority."

Klein further connects the root to a Semitic root meaning "root, origin, source." The Hebrew word atzil - אציל - "nobleman, aristocrat" derives from here, originally meaning "firmly rooted." Another meaning of atzil - not frequently used in Modern Hebrew - is "joint (of the arm, elbow)", also related to the sense of "side."

Arabic also has cognates, which include 'asil - "of noble origin", coming from asl - "root, origin." This gives us the word asli, which in Arabic means "original." It has been borrowed into Israeli slang with the sense of genuine or authentic, and is often found describing food products.