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.

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