Thursday, November 18, 2021

cucumber and kishu

In 2007, we discussed the Hebrew word for "cucumber", melafefon מלפפון. In the end of the post, I quoted an article that stated:

the melafefon in the Talmud is a melon, and the cucumber should be called by its Biblical name - kishu קישוא (from Bamidbar 11:5 - זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת-הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת-הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת-הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת-הַשּׁוּמִים. "We remember the ... cucumbers (kishuim) ... that we ate in Egypt") and what we today call kishu (zucchini squash) ... should be called kishot קישות or kishu-bishul קישוא-בישול.

While that recommendation was not adopted by Hebrew speakers, I recently discovered a theory that connects kishu and "cucumber." 

I actually could have noticed it when I wrote my earlier post, since Klein mentions it in his entry for kishu:

1 cucumber (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Num. 11:5). 2 gourd, vegetable marrow. [Related to MH קָשׁוּת, Syr. קַשׁוּתָא, Punic kissou, Arab. quththā, qiththa, Ethiop. pl. qesāt, Akka. qishshu (= cucumber). Gk. sikuos (= cucumber) is a Heb. loan word. See ‘Sicyos’ in my CEDEL.]

However, even if I had noticed that the Greek sikuos is a Hebrew loan word, I didn't have his CEDEL dictionary at the time, so I couldn't have picked up the trail. Here's what he writes for "Sicyos", the genus of plants that includes the burr cucumbers:

Modern Latin, from Greek sikuos, 'cucumber', which [...] is borrowed from Hebrew *qishshu'ah (plural qishshu'im

He then points to his entry for "cucumber." The Online Etymology Dictionary includes some of his findings:

late 14c., cucomer, from Old French cocombre (13c., Modern French concombre), from Latin cucumerem (nominative cucumis), perhaps from a pre-Italic Mediterranean language.

But Klein goes further. He says that the Latin comes from Greek, which eventually connects to Hebrew. He writes that the Latin cucumis is

from Greek kukuos, assimilated from sikuos, 'cucumber', a collateral form of sikuh, of same meaning, which was probably formed through metathesis from Hebrew qishshu'ah, 'cucumber'.

Recalling that the Greeks pronounced the Hebrew sh as s (think Shlomo / Solomon), we can see how kishu could become sikuh. And from there, the path to cucumber is certainly possible (see the same theory  mentioned here as well). I wonder what additional insights I'll have when I look at this post 14 years from now...


Thursday, November 11, 2021

benzene and levonah

One of the most common queries I receive is if two similar looking words - one in Hebrew and one in English (or some other language) are related. More often than not, there's no connection. It's just a coincidence, no more significant than two unrelated people looking like each other. 

However, sometimes the two words are cognates, and that makes for a great post here, especially when despite the similar sounds and letters, the meanings don't seem to be connected at all (like our last post on cherry and keres).

Other times, however, the remnants of a Semitic origin in an English word are difficult to identify with the naked eye. They might only maintain one or two letters from that cognate. That's the case with the word "benzene."

The chemical benzene is found in crude oil, and when added to gasoline provides its sweet smell. In Hebrew, the equivalent word, בנזין, refers to gasoline (or petrol) in general. Other languages that call their equivalent of benzene for gasoline include German (Benzin), Italian (benzina) and Russian (бензин - benzin). 

Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for benzene:

clear, colorless liquid used as a solvent, 1835, benzine, altered from German Benzin, coined in 1833 by German chemist Eilhardt Mitscherlich (1794-1863) from Benz(oesäure) "benzoic acid" + -in, indicating "derived from". Mitscherlich obtained it from a distillation of benzoic acid, obtained from benzoin. The form benzene (with hydrocarbon suffix -ene) was proposed in 1835 and began to be used from 1838 in English.

Klein credits A. W. Hofmann for the spelling "benzene." Since benzene came from "benzoin", we need to see the origin of that word as well. Here's the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

balsamic resin obtained from a tree (Styrax benzoin) of Indonesia, 1560s (earlier as bengewine, 1550s), from French benjoin (16c.), which comes via Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian from Arabic luban jawi "incense of Java" (actually Sumatra, but the Arabs confused the two), with lu probably mistaken in Romance languages for a definite article.

From here we see that bezoin actually comes from two words: luban jawi. While this entry renders it as "incense of Java", a more precise translation for luban (as Klein offers here) would be "frankincense." Luban has a Hebrew cognate, levonah לבונה, which appears 21 times in the Bible, and was used in the Temple service, including in the incense offering, due to its pleasing aroma. 

Levona, in turn, gets its name due to its white - lavan לבן - color.  

So returning to "benzene", we can now see that two of the letters - "b" and "n" - are cognate with the Hebrew levonah and lavan. I'm sure that's a question that no one will ever walk up to me on the street and ask me, but I find it fascinating nonetheless.