In an earlier post, we discussed the Semitic etymologies of two towns in upstate New York: Utica and Ithaca. Both are named for cities in the Mediterranean, and are claimed to ultimately have Phoenician origins. Well, if you drive from Utica to Ithaca, you will pass through another city with a similar story: Syracuse.
Having grown up in nearby Rochester, all of these cities were familiar to me. On a recent visit to Rochester, my brother and sister-in-law prepared Syracuse salt potatoes - a delicious dish that I hadn't tried before. Only later did I learn that Syracuse is nicknamed "The Salt City", due to the salty springs in the area, that led to it becoming a center of salt production. So I guess in a city like that, you can afford to cook potatoes in 1.5 cups of salt.
Those same sources of salt also led to the name of the city. In the 19th century, officials chose to name the city "Syracuse" after an ancient town of the same name in the Mediterranean island of Sicily. That older Syracuse also was known for producing salt, and had marshes like the one in upstate New York. It was a good fit.
According to some, those marshes provided the original name of the city. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives this origin:
city in Sicily, founded as a Corinthian colony, and with a name traceable to 8c. B.C.E., from a pre-Hellenic word, perhaps Phoenician serah "to feel ill," in reference to its location near a swamp. The city in New York, U.S., was named 1825 for the classical city.
The word serah mentioned here is a cognate with the Hebrew סרח, meaning "to stink". Klein has this etymology:
Aram. סְרַח (= it decayed, putrefied), Syr. סְרַח (= he sinned, was corrupt), Aram. סוּרְחָנָא (= corruptness).
It only appears in the Bible in one verse, Yirmiyahu 49:7, describing the nation of Edom. The prophet asks:
Has their wisdom gone stale?
But the verb became much more common in Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow offers the following meanings: "to evaporate, be decomposed; to decay; to smell badly." Today, the most common form of the verb is the hifil - הסריח "it stank."
(There is another root with the same letters - סרח, meaning "to stretch, spread out, extend", but it is unrelated to the meaning "to stink.")
This is not the only suggested etymology of Syracuse. The French diplomat Victor Bérard proposed that it originally derived from the Phoenician Sour-ha-Koussim, translated as "stone of the seagulls." This would be cognate with the Hebrew צור הכוסים. Tzur certainly means "rock", but kos, a bird mentioned in Vayikra 11:17 and Devarim 14:16 is usually translated as "owl" - a bird found in the desert, not at sea. However, Gesenius does write that kos should be identified as the "pelican" (whose pouch perhaps recalls the other meaning of kos - "cup, vessel.") Those are much more likely to be found around Sicily than desert owls.