Sunday, October 02, 2022


I was recently asked about the etymology of the word סְנִיף snif  - meaning "branch," as in the branch of a bank or the local branch of a youth movement.

Klein provides some information. For snif, he writes:

PBH 1 attachment, addition. NH 2 branch of a school or of a business institution. [From סנף.] 

But in his entry for the root סנף, he doesn't have much to offer regarding the origin. He defines the verb as "to add, join, insert" (with some forms also meaning "to annex"), but leaves the etymology as "of uncertain origin." This is actually surprising, since he tends to rely heavily on the Ben Yehuda dictionary's etymologies. 

In this case the entry for סנף in Ben Yehuda suggest that סנף may be the ספעל (saf'el) verb form of the Hebrew root ענף, also meaning "branch." (Saf'el is similar to shaf'el, which we saw here, and is more likely to be found in words wtih Aramaic influence.) So the meaning would be "to cause to become a branch." Even-Shoshan expands on this, implying that the original form was סענף, but the ayin dropped out, leaving סנף.

In this essay, Yaakov Etsion notes that in Talmudic Hebrew, snif referred to wedges or beams that were attached to larger pieces. From there it was later borrowed into the more abstract sense of any type of attachment. And in the end, Etsion notes that it was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself who gave snif the modern meaning of "branch, affiliate."


Sunday, August 21, 2022

taar and morah

In the Tanakh, there are two words for razor for shaving. The more common one, תַּעַר ta'ar, is found in five verses: Bamidbar 6:5, 8:7; Yeshaya 7:20; Tehilim 52:4,  and Yechezkel 5:1. (In Yirmiyahu 36:23, it refers to a scribe's knife.) 

The less frequent word, מוֹרָה morah, only appears three times: Shoftim 13:5, 16:17; and Shmuel I 1:11. All of these mentions of morah refer to nazirites (Shimshon and Shmuel). 

The laws of the nazirite are found in Bamidbar, and that is where ta'ar appears. The phrasing of the verses is very similar. Bamidbar 6:5 says תַּעַר לֹא־יַעֲבֹר עַל־רֹאשׁוֹ "no razor [ta'ar] shall touch his head." Of both Shimshon and Shmuel the verses say וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ "and no razor [morah] shall come on his head." This would seem to indicate that the two words are synonymous - referring to the same object, first in the law of the nazir, and then in the stories of two nazirites.

This understanding is reflected in the etymology of the two words. Many recent scholars say that they share a common origin. For example, Klein writes in his entry for morah:

Of uncertain origin; possibly contraction of מַעֲרָה, from ערה ᴵ (= to lay bare), whence תַּעַר (= razor).

The root ערה, "to lay bare, strip" (the source of arom ערום - "naked") therefore led to both words. Morah was a contraction (the ayin dropped out) of ma'areh (meaning an open, bare place - see Shoftim 20:33), and ta'ar was a different way the noun was formed.

Kaddari also accepts this theory, and expands it by noting the connection between the root גלח - "to shave" and גלה - "to uncover, expose."

This same root - "to reveal" - can explain another usage of ta'ar in the Tanakh. It can also mean "sheath (of a sword), scabbard" (Shmuel I 17:51; Shmuel II 20:8; Yirmiyahu 47:6; Yechezkel 21:8,9,10,35). As Klein points out:

Prob. from ערה ᴵ (= to lay bare, uncover), whence also Ugar. t‘rt (= sheath of a sword); hence of the same etymology as תַּעַר ᴵ.

Gesenius says that ta'ar as sheath, "perhaps so called from emptiness." 

Today, morah is almost never used for "razor" (probably because its other meaning, female teacher, is much more prevalent). Ta'ar is used for razor, although the phrase סַכִּין גִּלּוּחַ sakin giluach is also common. As far as sheath/scabbard, I guess I never had a reason to use the word, since the current word surprised me: נָדָן nadan. But it too is biblical, found in Divrei Hayamim I 21:27. However its origin is Persian (see a discussion here).

Monday, August 08, 2022

gazam and higzim

'When discussing hiflig, I mentioned that while one definition is "exaggerate", that's not a use common in Hebrew today. 

I've now given it a bit more thought, and I think the reason is perhaps the popularity of the word higzim הגזים for "exaggerate." With a word that pervasive, there wasn't need for a synonym, which left hiflig as "exaggerate" an archaic usage.

That got me wondering about higzim. It is the hifil form of the verb גזם. That verb, in its kal form, means "to cut", or more specifically "to prune, trim." (We've already noted that it fits the pattern of roots beginning with *גז meaning "to cut.") How did a root that means "to prune" (the process of shortening) come to mean "to exaggerate" - which is making something bigger than it really is?

Klein notes that in addition higzim meaning "to exaggerate", it also means "to threaten." While not in common use today, that sense is found in Talmudic Hebrew. Jastrow provides a few such cases in his entry. For example, he quotes Shevuot 46a:

עביד איניש דגזים וכ׳ a man frequently threatens mischief and does not do it. Ib. הכי נמי ג׳ וכ׳ .. in this case, too, he may have threatened and not done it.

The English Steinsaltz translation is slightly different than Jastrow's:

אלמא עביד איניש דגזים ולא עביד הכא נמי דגזים ולא עביד

Evidently, a person is prone to bluster without acting on his threat. Here, also, it could be that he was blustering about seizing collateral, but did not act on it.

The choice of "to bluster" as the translation of the Aramaic cognate גזים was a clever choice. Meaning "to talk or act with noisy swaggering threats" and "to utter with noisy self-assertiveness", it encompasses both the sense of "to threaten" and "to exaggerate." This is appropriate for the case above, where the person doesn't carry through with his threat.

But not every threat is a bluster. For example, the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:6) refers to the story of Joseph and Potifar's wife, saying that if Joseph did not acquiesce to her request, she threatened to tell her her husband that Joseph assaulted her. And yet Joseph did not give in to her, despite what she threatened to do to him - שֶׁהָיְתָה מַגְזֶמֶת לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ. And as we know from the biblical story - she did indeed tell her husband that Joseph assaulted her - she carried out her threat.

One word can't therefore contain all the meanings of higzim. So we need a different explanation as to the different meanings of the verb גזם. Klein provides just such an explanation. After providing an initial definition of גזם meaning "to cut down, hew down," in his explanation of the second meaning ("to exaggerate, to threaten"), he writes:

This base is prob. identical with גזם ᴵ. The phases of sense development prob. are: cut; ‘to speak in a cutting or sharp manner; to exaggerate; to threaten’.

It seems to me that "to threaten" probably preceded "to exaggerate", but his connecting of "to cut" and to speak in a "cutting or sharp manner" makes sense to me.  

Sunday, July 31, 2022

hiflig and muflag

A few months ago, we discussed the root peleg פלג. I noted the following:

The cognate פלג provides even more words. As with פלח, the root means "cleave, split, divide." Here are a sample of some of the words deriving from that root:

  • פִּלֵּג pileg - "to divide, separate"
  • הִפְלִיג hiflig - "to depart (by ship), to set sail"

Looking back, I don't think I gave enough attention to the form hiflig, and I didn't even mention the passive form - muflag מופלג. Let's look at them now.

Unlike pileg, these forms only appear in post-Biblical Hebrew. Klein provides a few different meanings:

        Hiph. - הִפֽלִיג 1 he separated (orig. ‘he divided’); 2 he went off (lit.: ‘he separated himself’); for sense development cp. Fren. partir (= to divide, separate), se partir (= to separate oneself, depart, leave); 3 he set sail; 4 he turned aside, diverted, put off; 5 he removed; 6 he exaggerated (lit. prob. meaning ‘he went too far’).
    — Hoph. - הֻפֽלַג 1 was diverted; 2 was removed.

For muflag he offers a few more:

 PBH 1 distant, remote. PBH 2 distinguished, excellent. NH 3 exaggerated.

However, there are many more meanings found in Talmudic and Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow lists the following (see the link for citations) for hiflig:

  • to part, go away
  • to go to sea
  • to rest from work, to pause
  • to divert, put off; to discard
  • to reject, disregard, discard
  • to decline from the road
  • to withdraw one's self, to be reserved, speak in indefinite and general terms
  • to differ
  • to go too far
And for muflag, Jastrow adds: removed, far, distinguished, special expert.

But Jastrow is only a dictionary of Talmudic and Midrashic Hebrew. The Ben-Yehuda dictionary, which goes all the way up to the early modern period, has even more. For example, it also includes:

  • to put off with fair words
  • to put aside
  • to separate oneself
  • to branch off, to step aside
  • to not mind, to not pay attention
  • to go astray
  • to go far
It also has "detached" for muflag. (I should note that the Ben-Yehuda dictionary has 6 (!) pages of examples of uses of these two roots, and they cover far more subtle differences than the translations I provided above).

What I find remarkable, is that with the root having so many meanings and connotations over the centuries, in modern Hebrew very few are still in use.

The dictionary web site Morfix only provides three definitions for hiflig:

to depart (by ship, boat); to sail; to exaggerate 
However, I don't recall hearing hiflig used in the sense "to exaggerate" in conversation in Israel. That could simply be an oversight on my part, but looking at the site Reverso, which takes its examples from a corpus of translated texts, I think I'm not so far off. For hiflig, Reverso only suggests the following: 

sailed, sail, sailing, shipped out, proceeded, departed

If we add the word שבח shevach - "praise" - to the phrase, then we find examples both in Medieval Hebrew and in Modern Hebrew of הפליג בשבח meaning "lavish praise (on someone/something)." Those examples don't imply exaggeration.

Regarding muflag, we see a similar phenomenon. Looking at the definition found in the various dictionaries, you might think that the common meaning was "exaggerated." That's particularly true if you consider some of the negative connotations of hiflig cited, like "to go astray", "to reject', and in particular, "to go too far", which Klein suggested was the origin of the meaning "exaggerated". 

But again, that's not really what we see in common use. Morfix does suggest "exaggerated", but the meanings listed are "grand" and "exalted". Reverso doesn't have "exaggerated" at all, instead offering:

superlative, ripe old, old age, great age, overdrive, superlatively, superfluous

I do recognize that "superfluous" isn't so far from "exaggerated", but I think the latter implies more conscious intent. A common use of muflag today is in the phrase gil muflag גיל מופלג (as seen in some of Reverso's suggestion), referring to someone very old.  So I think good translations of muflag could be "exceeding(ly great)" or "excessive", depending on the context. Sometimes it would reflect the earlier sense of "to go far" and other times "to go too far."

Sunday, July 24, 2022


A reader asked about the etymology of  אוֹלָר olar - "pen knife" - since Klein reports that the word is "of unknown origin." The more recent Even-Shoshan dictionary also does not provide the origin of the word.

The word olar appears for the first time in Mishnaic Hebrew, but appears in only a very few sources, making its history difficult to decipher.

The most prominent source is Mishna Kelim 12:8, which lists various utensils subject to ritual impurity. It begins by mentioning: הָאוֹלָר, וְהַקֻּלְמוֹס  - the olar and the kulmos. Since the latter is a "reed pen" (as we discussed here), the olar was understood to specifically refer to a penknife, since that kind of small knife was originally used for cutting the quills used for pens. Like the English word penknife, today olar refers to any kind of pocket knife, like the famous Swiss Army knife.

We also find the olar and the kulmos together in Tosefta Kelim BB 7:12, and that's pretty much it. The Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language provides a few more mentions, but none shed light on the possible origin of the word. However, looking at the quotes mentioned there, we do find that some sources have the word spelled אוֹלָד olad, instead of olar

Jastrow prefers this spelling, and provides this definition:

a tool for hollowing out and cutting the writing reed (scalprum), a sort of pen-knife.

Following his general tendency to look for Semitic origins for Talmudic words, Jastrow suggests that olad comes from the roots ילד or ולד, presumably in the way that a fetus fills the abdominal cavity of a pregnant woman.

That suggestion seems farfetched to me. Yet putting his etymology aside, it's not clear which is the original word - olar or olad. Based on the similarity between the letters resh and dalet, it's understandable how such a rare word could have been the subject of a scribal error in either direction. But with no etymology, we can't really say which form should be preferred.

The question of olar vs olad became more intense during the dawn of modern Hebrew - I assume because the word was now entering the vernacular, and people needed to know how to say and write it. 

Bialik claimed that olad was the original form (which lead to an interesting conversation with Avineri), as did Kohut in his Arukh Hashalem. Tur-Sinai agreed that olad was probably the original form, but noted that since we don't know the etymology, there's no point in objecting to the popular form olar. And since olar is the way it appears in most printed editions of the Mishna, as well as in the later works of the Rambam (as pointed out by Melamed here) , that's what stuck.

So what about the etymology? The footnote to the olar entry in the Ben-Yehuda dictionary concedes that the source isn't known (which is likely what led Klein to the same conclusion). It notes that there were attempts to find a Greek source, but like Jastrow's Hebrew one, they are not convincing. It quotes Fleischer as saying that olar (or olad) is one of those words that entered Hebrew in the Mishnaic period that we simply don't know the etymology. Fleischer was commenting on Jacob Levy's dictionary of Talmudic terms (in German). Levy (page 40) proposes a Greek etymology, and then Fleischer later disagrees (page 279). Using Google Translate, Fleischer considers this one of the "numerous unsolved, maybe even unsolvable, etymological riddles of this mixed language." (German speakers are welcome to provide a better translation).

Nothing I found in more recent scholarship has presented a "new" etymology for olar.

If you read this far that might not be satisfying, and even frustrating. But I look at it as an opportunity. Perhaps one of you will be the one to crack the case!

Sunday, July 17, 2022


This is a short one, but I thought it was interesting.

The Hebrew word for helmet, kasda  קַסְדָּה (or in the Mishna, קַסְדָּא) comes from Latin. Here is Klein's etymology:

From L. cassis, gen. cassidis, which prob. stands for * kadh-tis, from IE * kadh– (= to guard, watch), whence also Old Eng. hōd, hood, haett (= hat).

While words like hood and hat may indeed be distantly cognate with kasda, I liked these closer cousins. 

The Latin cassida shows up in the name of a genus of tortoise beetles, whose shells do recall a helmet:

From Wikipedia / © Darius Baužys

It also appears in the name of of a family of large sea snails, the Cassidae, who are also known as "helmet snails":

How responsible of them to be wearing a kasda!

Monday, July 11, 2022

safsal and asla

One of the fun things when doing etymological research is discovering two related words, that you previously had no idea were connected, but once you look into it the connection makes a lot of sense.

That's the case with the words סַפְסָל safsal and אַסְלָה asla

Here's Klein's entry for safsal:

PBH bench, stool. [From L. sub-selliam (= bench, seat), through the medium of Gk. suphellion, formed from sub (= under; see סוּבּ◌), and sella, from the base of sedēre (= to sit)]

Having safsal derive from the Latin subsellium makes even more sense when you note that some manuscripts of the mishna vocalize the word as safsel

The Latin sella - "seat, chair" - also appears in asla (today "toilet" / "toilet bowl"). Again, here's Klein:

PBH (pl. אֲסָלוֹת, resp. אֲסֶלּוֹת) closet stool, lavatory seat. [L. sella (= seat, chair, stool), for sed-lā, from sedēre (= to sit). ... The אַ◌ in אַסְלָה is prosthetic.]

The same roots for these Hebrew words have also made their way into English. The verb sedere made its way into such words as sedentary, preside, and sedate. And if we go back to its Proto-Indo-European root, *sed, we get even more English words, including very common ones like sit, set, and chair

That same PIE root, via Greek, gave us one more very familiar Hebrew word - sanhedrin סנהדרין. Klein provides the background:

PBH 1 ‘Sanhedrin’ — the supreme Jewish court (סַנְהֶדְרִין גְּדוֹלָה) in the time of the Second Temple, consisting of 71 scholars. 2 one of the lesser courts with 23 members, called סַנְהֶדְרִין קְטַנָּה, lit.: ‘the small Sanhedrin’. [Gk. synedrion (= council, council chamber), lit.: ‘sitting together’, from syn (= with, together with), and edra (= a seat), which is cogn. with L. sedēre (= to sit).]

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a similar etymology, but has the Greek hedra for "seat." 

All these words represent very different kinds of "seats", each with their own purpose. Since sitting is such a common experience, it shouldn't be surprising that it has led to so many words - expressing both the literal and symbolic expression of the action.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

falafel, pilpel, and pilpul

One of the foods most identified with Israel is falafel. While the food is ancient, the name is more recent - and derives from the Arabic falafil. There are a number of theories as to the etymology of falafil:

The most common suggestion I found was that the Arabic derives from the Persian word for "pepper", which in turn was borrowed from Sanskrit. This is likely due to how the falafel was spiced. 

Like Arabic, Hebrew also received their word for pepper - פִּלְפֵּל pilpel - in a similar fashion. Here's Klein's entry for pilpel:

Like Arab. fulful, filfil (= pepper) borrowed through Persian and Aram. mediation from Old I. pippalī́ (= berry, peppercorn), which is of imitative origin. Gk. peperi (whence L. piper) is of the same origin. L. piper was borrowed by many European languages.

Those European languages include English. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for "pepper":

"dried berries of the pepper plant," Middle English peper, from Old English pipor, from an early West Germanic borrowing of Latin piper "pepper," from Greek piperi, probably (via Persian) from Middle Indic pippari, from Sanskrit pippali "long pepper." The Latin word is the source of German Pfeffer, Italian pepe, French poivre, Old Church Slavonic pipru, Lithuanian pipiras, Old Irish piobhar, Welsh pybyr, etc.

Application to fruits of the Capsicum family (unrelated, originally native of tropical America) is from 16c.

Other words deriving from the spice "pepper" include "peppermint", "pepperoni", and "pep" (as in "vigor, energy"). The Hungarian word "paprika", however, got its name from the New World sweet (bell) peppers.

The Hebrew pilpel is found in rabbinic literature, starting in the mishna. It also appears in the Aramaic form פִּלְפַּלְתָּא pilpalta, but with the same meaning. In modern Hebrew there was an attempt to establish the related פִּלְפֶּלֶת pilpelet as the word for bell peppers, leaving pilpel for the spice pepper. You'll still see pilpelet in dictionaries, but from my experience, Israelis use pilpel for both kinds of pepper, and don't use pilpelet at all.

One Hebrew word that many claim ultimately derives from the same Sanskrit root is פִּלְפּוּל pilpul. It is variously translated as "sharp analysis", "intense debate", or for those less charitable, "hairsplitting" or "sophistry." It is a method found in studying Talmud, where different texts, or passages in the same text, are closely analyzed, and conclusions are found from the contradictions between them. The sharpness of the debates has led to the theory that pilpul is related to pilpel (pepper). For example, here's the opening of the entry from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia for pilpul:

A method of Talmudic study. The word is derived from the verb "pilpel" (lit. "to spice," "to season," and in a metaphorical sense, "to dispute violently" [Tosef., B. B. vii. 5] or "cleverly" [Shab. 31a; B. M. 85b]). Since by such disputation the subject is in a way spiced and seasoned, the word has come to mean penetrating investigation, disputation, and drawing of conclusions, and is used especially to designate a method of studying the Law (Ab. vi. 5; Baraita; B. B. 145b; Tem. 16a; Ket. 103b; Yer. Ter. iv. 42d).

However, it then goes on to note that a different etymology derives from it from the Hebrew root פלל. This is the origin that Klein provides in his entry for the verb פלפל, meaning "to discuss, argue, debate":

Pilp. of base פלל. Whence also Syr. פַּל (= he sprinkled), corresponding to Heb. בְּלֵל, respectively בִּלֽבֵּל. There is no connection between the v. פלפל ᴵ and the n. פִּלְפֵּל (= pepper) as most scholars would have it.

(Interestingly, in his earlier CEDEL, Klein does write that pilpul derives from "he spiced, he seasoned" from which came the meaning "he argued, he debated, he disputed violently.")

As we've discussed before, the root פלל means both "to judge" and "to pray", and according to Klein, originally meant "to cut," and "to decide", which would presumably be his connection to the debates of pilpul

As often happens, Klein's Hebrew etymological dictionary relies on the Ben Yehuda dictionary, which also denies a connection between pilpul and pepper, and directs us to a 1935 essay by the linguist Hanoch Yelon. Yelon interprets the word תִּתַּפָּל in Shmuel II 22:27 as deriving from פלל, and meaning "to roll (over)" and so the root פלפל (in the sense of analysis) would mean to turn something from side to side while investigating it. This use is found in the midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 21:1) where we read of a warrior who   מפלפל בזיינו ומראה פנים לכל צד - "turned his sword about and made it face each direction." 

From this, and other examples he brings, Yelon is convinced the connection to pepper is only a folk-etymology. This folk-etymology may go back a long time (see for example this passage from Yoma 85b, which compares a good argument to spicy pepper), but most modern scholars accept that pilpul and pepper aren't related. However, they don't all agree with Yelon's etymology. For example, the Even-Shoshan dictionary says פלפל derives from בלבל, meaning "to confuse, to mix up", although it does give a similar definition of the original meaning of pilpul based on that etymology: "to turn something over and over."

Well, this analysis has gone on quite a bit, and I don't want to be accused of excessive pilpul, so we'll end it here...

Tuesday, June 21, 2022


There is no question that the name of the star Betelgeuse (the inspiration for the 1988 movie Beetlejuice) derives from Arabic. However, how it got that name is the subject of dispute. Let's review how different sources present the etymology, and how it might connect to any Hebrew words.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has a short entry for Betelgeuse:

alpha Orionis, bright reddish star in the right shoulder of Orion, 1515, from Arabic Ibt al Jauzah, traditionally said to mean "the Armpit of the Central One" (with this arm he holds his club aloft), but perhaps more accurately "Hand of al-Jauza (Orion)." Intermediary forms include Bed Elgueze, Beit Algueze.

However, this leaves many open questions. The Arabic 'ibT means "armpit", but why then would the term be "more accurately" be the "Hand of al-Jauza (Orion)", with hand being yad in Arabic (as in Hebrew). What is the role of these "intermediary forms": Bed ElguezeBeit Algueze, the latter of which would seem to indicate the Arabic word for house: bayt (again similar to the Hebrew beit)? And what is the meaning of Jauza? Why is it "the Central One" or "Orion"? And what is its etymology?

These questions are addressed in other sources, although without complete clarity. The Wiktionary entry for Betelgeuse attempts to tackle them:

Ultimately from an alteration of the Arabic يَد الجَوْزَاء‎ (yad al-jawzāʾ, “hand of the central one”), from يَد‎ (yad, “hand”) + جَوْزَاء‎ (jawzāʾ, “central one”).

Jawzā, ‘the central one’, initially referred to Gemini among the Arabs, but at some point they decided to refer to Orion by that name. During the Middle Ages the first character of the name, ’ (ي, with two underdots), was misread as a ’ (ب, with one underdot) when transliterating into Latin, and Yad al-Jauza became Bedalgeuze. This was then misinterpreted during the Renaissance as deriving from a corruption of an original Arabic form إِبْط الجَوْزَاء (ʾibṭ al-jawzāʾ, “armpit of the central one”). 

A similar explanation is found in the American Heritage dictionary:

The history of the curious star name Betelgeuse is a good example of how scholarly errors can creep into language. The story starts with the pre-Islamic Arabic astronomers, who called the star yad al-jawzā', "hand of the jawzā'." The jawzā' was their name for the constellation Gemini. After Greek astronomy became known to the Arabs, the word came to be applied to the constellation Orion as well. Some centuries later, when scribes writing in Medieval Latin tried to render the word, they misread the y as a b (the two corresponding Arabic letters are very similar when used as the first letter in a word), leading to the Medieval Latin form Bedalgeuze. In the Renaissance, another set of scholars trying to figure out the name interpreted the first syllable bed- as being derived from a putative Arabic word *bā meaning "armpit." This word did not exist; it would correctly have been ib. Nonetheless, the error stuck, and the resultant etymologically "improved" spelling Betelgeuse was borrowed into French as Bételgeuse, whence English Betelgeuse.

More details about how this came to be can be found in this article and in this one

We've now learned two more things. One, that there may have been a number of transcription and translations errors, leading from Yad al-Jauza to Bedalgeuze, which was then misunderstood as ʾibṭ al-jawzāʾ. (The Hebrew Wikipedia article for Betelgeuse notes that the transcription error may have led to the term being interpreted as Beit al-Jauza -- the house of Jauza).  Secondly, the term originally referred to the constellation Gemini, and only later came to refer to Orion.

Now let's turn to jawza - the "central" one. This etymology surprised me. Recall that the term originally referred to the constellation Gemini, "the twins." The Arabic term for Gemini is Jawza'. And the Arabic Etymological Dictionary has the following entry:

jauz : pair [zauj]

From this it would seem that jauz and zauj (also the Arabic word for "husband", one member of the pair), are related through metathesis. This would make them both cognate with the Hebrew zug זוג - also meaning "pair." To me this seems like a pretty obvious etymology: the constellation Gemini, the "twins", was called al-jauza, "the pair." But I haven't seen any sources that take this approach.

Rather, they all claim, as we've quoted above, that it derives from jawza meaning "central." Does that term have any Hebrew cognates?

From the Wiktionary entry for the Arabic root jwz, we see that as a verb it has a number of meanings, including "to cause to travel over, pass through" and "to carry through one's views." As a noun it can mean "main part" or "middle" - both giving us our "central." The connection between "passing through" and "central" is easy to understand - in general, one passes through the middle. The Arabic Etymological Dictionary adds that the verb jaza also means "to divide" (in addition to "go through, cross over, pass along.").

This verb does give us a connection to Hebrew. Stahl, in his Hebrew etymological dictionary of Arabic, notes that jaza, meaning "to divide, cut", is cognate to the Hebrew גזז - "to cut off, shear." Here's Klein's entry for גזז:

JAram. גְּזַז, Syr. גַּז, Arab. jazza (= he cut off, shore), Aram. גִּזָּא, Syr. גֶּזְּתָא (= wool), Akka. gizzu sha ṣēni (= sheep-shearing, wool). cp. the related base גזה.
I still think that the term might have originally meant "the twins/pair." But it's nice to know that even the accepted etymology has a possible Hebrew cognate as well.

Monday, June 13, 2022

shamir, shumar and emery

The word שמיר shamir has two meanings in the Tanach. In the book of Yeshayahu (5:6, 7:23-25, 9:17, 10:17, 27:4, 32:13) it refers to a kind of thorny plant or thistle. In other books of the prophets (Yirmiyahu 17:1, Yechezkel 3:9, Zechariah 7:12) it has a different meaning - a very hard stone, like a diamond.

Klein suggests they are related. For the thistle meaning he has this entry:

שָׁמִיר ᴵ m.n. Christ’s thorn (mostly occurring together with, שַׁיִת, q.v.). [Related to JAram. שַׁמָּרָא, שֻׁמָּרָא (= fennel), Arab. samur. cp. שֻׁמָּר.] 

And for the stone he has the following:

שָׁמִיר ᴵᴵ m.n. 1 smiris corundum, adamant, diamond, emery (in the Bible occurring only Jer. 17:1; Ezek. 3:9; Zech. 7:12). 2 ‘shamir’ (a legendary worm or stone created on the Sabbath eve that could cut any stone). [Related to Syr. שָׁמִירָא (= adamant; emery), Arab. sammūr. שָׁמִיר ᴵᴵ is prob. a special sense development of שָׁמִיר ᴵ and properly denotes orig. a thorn or prickle used as a point for engraving. cp. Jer. 17:1: חַטַּאת יְהוּדָה כְּתוּבָה בְּעֵט בֵּרְזֶל בְּצִפֹּרֶן שָׁמִיר, ‘The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond’. Gk. smiris (= emery powder) — whence Gk. smeri, whence It. smeriglio, whence Fren. émeri, whence Eng. emery — is prob. borrowed from שָׁמִיר ᴵᴵ. cp. ‘emery’ in my CEDEL.]

So he concludes that the stone, used for engraving, was similar to the earlier meaning of thorn, and therefore derives from it. And as he notes, this could be a source for the English word "emery," as conceded by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

granular mixture used as an abrasive, late 15c., from French émeri, from Old French esmeril, from Italian smeriglo, from Vulgar Latin *smyrilium, from Greek smyris "abrasive powder" used for rubbing and polishing, probably a non-Greek word, perhaps from a Semitic source. Emery board is attested from 1725.

However, the Encyclopedia Mikrait (entry מלים זרות, page 1078), includes the Hebrew shamir and the Greek smyris in a list of biblical Semitic and Indo-European words that derive from a language family not common to either. It doesn't say where this word (or the others in the list) comes from, but says it's possible that the origin is from Asia Minor, Crete or elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Neither of the two meanings is in popular use today. The Talmud and  midrash (for example Avot 5:6) identified the second meaning not as a stone, but as Klein mentioned, "a legendary worm  ... that could cut any stone." This version continued to appear in legends.

The two original meanings inspired the future Israeli prime minister, then Yitzhak Yezernitsky, to change his name to Yitzchak Shamir. As a biography notes, he chose it because it means a "thorn, which stabs and stings: the question is who" and a "hard precious stone capable of breaking steel."

But the most common usage of shamir today is one that Klein doesn't mention: the herb "dill." Almost all dictionaries, if they mention any background at all, will comment that this is the "popular" usage, but the correct Hebrew term for dill is שֶׁבֶת shevet or more specifically שֶׁבֶת רֵיחָנִי shevet reichani. This is the term found in the Mishna. Then why did the people start calling dill shamir

It seems to be due to a confusion between dill, and the botantically related, and similar looking, "fennel".  As Klein noted above, the thistle meaning of shamir is related to the words for fennel in other Semitic languages: shumra in Aramaic and samur in Arabic. This led to the adoption of shumar for fennel in later Hebrew, with shamir available for dill. Here is how each of those spices are defined in the Encyclopedia Judaica, as cited in the Jewish Virtual Library:


The umbelliferous plant Foeniculum vulgare, leaves of which are used as a spice similar to dill, fennel is called gufnan in the Mishnah (Dem. 1:1) and shumar in the Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud (Dem. 1:1, 21d) states that the Galileans did not consider it a spice, but it was regarded as such in Judah.


Called shevet in the Mishnah, dill is the plant Anethum graveolens used today mainly as a spice in pickled cucumbers. In mishnaic times its foliage, stems, and seed were used as a spice (Ma'as. 4:5), and it was sown for this purpose (Pe'ah 3:2). It is an umbelliferous plant with yellow flowers, which grows wild in the Negev (it is popularly but erroneously called shamir).

From the Chubeza site (a great CSA farm in Israel), the following is added:

Officially, the proper Hebrew name for dill is “shevet reichani” – aromatic “shevet,” but the name this herb somehow ended up with is “Shamir”, a word actually used to describe a thorny wild plant used metaphorically in the Bible when describing a farm overgrown with weeds. Amotz Cohen, teacher and nature explorer, believes that dill is really the “poterium” found primarily in abandoned fields over the country.

Steinberg, in the Milon HaTanach entry for shamir, writes that "in the European exile shamir was used for the plant we call shumar (i.e., fennel)." So perhaps first shamir was used to mean fennel, and then later became designated for dill.

As often happens with "popular" usage, there isn't a definitive answer to when and how the term was adopted, but there is no doubt that in Israel today, shamir = dill, and dill = shamir.

One word that Klein doesn't connect to shamir, and I find this surprising, is masmer מסמר - "nail." Here is his entry:

A collateral form of מַשְׂמֵר; derived from סמר. cp. Aram. מַסְמְרָא (= nail). Arab. mismār is prob. an Aram. loan word

Looking at the root סמר, it's noteworthy that Klein defines it as "to bristle up." To me, "bristle" recalls "thorn" and "nail" echoes the hard stone used for cutting. While Klein doesn't connect them, the Even-Shoshan dictionary does entertain the possibility that they are related. So perhaps this is one more cognate word to consider.

Sunday, May 01, 2022


A reader asked about the word shidah שִׁדָּה, translated by Morfix as "dresser, chest of drawers." That seemed like an easy task - but I didn't know what I was getting into.

The word shidah appears in only one verse in the entire Tanach. It appears twice in the verse, so I don't know if it counts as a hapax legomenon, but it certainly suffers from the same fate that other such words do - without multiple appearances, they are hard to translate. In this case, it's even harder, because the context of the verse itself leaves nearly infinite possible interpretations.

It appears in the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a section where the king is boasting about his possessions. Here is the Hebrew:

כָּנַסְתִּי לִי גַּם־כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב וּסְגֻלַּת מְלָכִים וְהַמְּדִינוֹת עָשִׂיתִי לִי שָׁרִים וְשָׁרוֹת וְתַעֲנֻגוֹת בְּנֵי הָאָדָם שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת

And the English (but I'm not translating - yet - our word shidah)

I further amassed silver and gold and treasures of kings and provinces; and I got myself male and female singers, and the pleasures of people, shida v’shidot. (Kohelet 2:8)

This is an incredibly difficult phrase to translate. What does shidah mean here? Why is the singular shida followed by the plural shidot?  Even the punctuation is hard to place properly, but I'll leave that aside for now. 

All we can really say is that it's something (or a set of things) that a king would list among his treasured possessions.

This question did not escape the Sages. In the Talmud (Gittin 68b), two interpretations are offered:

שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת הָכָא תַּרְגִּימוּ שֵׁידָה וְשֵׁידְתִין בְּמַעְרְבָא אָמְרִי שִׁידְּתָא

I'll translate the passage as follows:

"Here [in Babylonia] they interpreted the phrase as follows: 'male and female demons' [shedim]. In the West [= in the Land of Israel], they said it means shiddeta."

Let's put aside the "demon" translation. As Rav Hai Gaon (quoted by the Arukh) noted, this is a drash, and not the plain meaning of the verse in Kohelet. But what about the "Western" translation? I once again haven't translated it into English!

Well, if you look at the English translations, they say that in the Land of Israel they translated shidah and shidot as "carriages." This is clearly due to the influence of Rashi, the preeminent Talmudic commentator, who writes here that shiddeta (and shidah) refer to carriages for women and nobles: שידתא - שידה עגלה למרכבת נשים ושרים.

But with all due respect to Rashi, I'm not convinced that this is the only (or best) interpretation of the Talmudic passage, and as a result, the meaning of the verse in Kohelet.

The term shidah appears repeatedly throughout the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmuds. It frequently is part of a set, a shidah, a teiva, and a migdal - שִׁדָּה תֵּבָה וּמִגְדָּל. All of these are types of furniture. The Steinsaltz English translation renders them, for example in Mishna Shabbat 16:5, as "a box, a chest, and a closet." (The Ben Yehuda dictionary says the difference between these types of boxes is not clear). These identifications, or something similar to them, are offered by most translators, including Rambam. Rashi is the exception, who in almost all cases associates shidah with carriages (see the examples brought here). 

Why does he do that? I couldn't find any obvious examples in the Talmudic or Midrashic literature where shidah means carriage. There is mention of a shidah having wheels (Mishna Kelim 18:1-2), but this doesn't appear to be referring to carriages intended for nobles.

(The only possible exception is a midrash quoted by Torah Temimah on Kohelet 2:8, but I couldn't find the midrash anywhere, and in his commentary on the midrash he quotes Rashi. So something strange is going on.)

I assume the topic has been researched, and it's very likely I simply haven't seen more established theories. But here's my suggestion. I think that Rashi was trying to be consistent across all of his commentaries when he was defining words (this is something that Avineri discusses in his Heichal Rashi). In his commentary on Kohelet 2:8, Rashi writes:

שִׁדָּה וְשִׁדּוֹת. מַרְכְּבוֹת נוֹי, עֶגְלוֹת צָב, וּבִלְשׁוֹן גְּמָרָא יֵשׁ: שִׁדָּה, תֵּיבָה וּמִגְדָּל:

This is translated as:

Beautiful coaches, covered wagons, a term used in the Gemara, "a coach [shidah], a chest and a closet."

So once again, Rashi is willing to interpret the shidah in the furniture set as a carriage (or coach). I think that this may be the source of the rest of his explanations. Why would a king boast about having a box or a closet? However, a particular kind of container, a carriage, does have royal associations. (See for example the apriyon, "litter", mentioned with King Shlomo in Shir HaShirim 3:9). So to explain Kohelet, Rashi extends his understanding of the word to other contexts, even when they don't fit as well. 

I admire Rashi's consistency here, but I don't know if it's required in this case. As I mentioned, it's incredibly hard to interpret shidah veshidot in Kohelet, and it simply might not be related to the shidah found in the Talmud. That certainly appears to be the opinion of Ibn Ezra, who writes in his commentary to Kohelet:

וענין שדה ושדות. הם הנשים ויורה עליו ותענוגות בני האדם ועוד שהזכיר דברי כל תאוות העולם מבנין ונטיעה ומקנה וסגולה ושמוע שירים ואין זכרון לנשים ונחלקו המפרשים במלת שדה והטוב שבכולם שהוא מן שדד הנשים השדודות הנלקחות בחזקה בשוד ושביה שיבחר מהן כפי תאותו וענין שדה ושדות אחת ורבות כמו רחם רחמתים לראש גבר בעלת רחם אשה אחת ושתים והענין שלא תאמר אחת לבדה כי יש מי שתפש שתים:

To summarize his comment, he says that shida and shidot means "women." His evidence is that the verse earlier mentions the "pleasures of people" and the earlier verses relate to all kinds of other desires, but don't mention women, which would be expected. He derives shidah from the root שדד, "to plunder", indicating women taken as captives. 

Ibn Ezra's explanation is accepted by a number of modern scholars as well, who also find support in an Ugaritic cognate meaning "woman" (see Daat Mikra on Kohelet, and Kaddari's dictionary).

But there are many more suggestions for the meaning of shidah in Kohelet, as well as the etymology of the word. Here are a few:

  • chests (Artscroll), coffers (New JPS)  - these translations (and others) are like Rashi in that they try to find consistency between shidah in Kohelet, and the appearances in later Rabbinic Hebrew. By translating the phrase as "chests and chests of them", it indicates an impressive quantity of the pleasures mentioned earlier, which they translate as "luxuries." That could indeed be fit for a king. As far as etymology, one theory that I've seen, connects shidah to shed שד, "breast." I think it is noteworthy that in English as well, "chest" can refer to both a box and to the breast, both holding something (in the latter case, the heart.)
  • wine, cup bearer, goblets - These renderings are found in the ancient Septuagint, Peshitta and Vulgate translations. BDB says these may be related to the Aramaic שדא - "to pour out."
  • musical instruments - this is the suggestion of Ralbag, who says they were shaped like boxes. This would fit with the previous phrase, "male and female singers."
Perhaps most the most audacious suggestion comes from Shadal, who suggests the verse in Kohelet should have a different vocalization, and says it should be read as sadeh שדה - "field." While that is certainly an interesting idea, I generally feel that such emendations should only be a last resort.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

kodesh and kadosh

 A reader asked me to write about the Hebrew words kadosh קדוש and kodesh קודש - generally translated as "holy" and "holiness," respectively. It's taken me a few months to get to the request, because while I agree that the root קדש deserves examination, the word is so loaded with religious meaning and pervasive in Jewish liturgy and culture that I found it somewhat intimidating to tackle. 

For example, here are just a few of the important terms that derive from the root קדש:

  • kiddush קידוש - the prayer and blessing over wine inaugurating Shabbat or holidays
  • kedusha קדושה - the section of the repeated Amida prayer which emulates the praise angels give to God
  • kaddish קדיש - the Aramaic praise of God, which is part of all prayer services, and whose recitation is part of the mourning rituals
  • kiddushin קידושין - betrothal - the first step of the marriage process
  • hekdesh הקדש - property consecrated to the Temple
  • mikdash מקדש - the Holy Temple
And looking in the Bible, there are over 800 words deriving from the root. Daunting, no?

But that doesn't mean I shouldn't try. So I'm acknowledging that I won't touch on every aspect of the words, and perhaps I'll update this post or write another one in the future with additional insights.

Let's start by looking at the forms of the verb.

  • קָדַשׁ kadash: The kal form of the verb is not commonly used today, but it does appear a number of times in the Bible. According to Klein it can either mean "was set apart, consecrated" or "was forbidden." It is interesting to note that in the two verses quoted in the Even-Shoshan dictionary for this form (Shemot 29:37 and Devarim 22:9), קדש has a negative connotation, referring to something forbidden.
  • נקדש nikdash: The nifal form, the passive of the kal, is more commonly found. Klein offers "was hallowed, was sanctified" and "was consecrated, was dedicated." The former is found in Biblical Hebrew (only used to refer to God), and the latter meaning seems to have begun in the Rabbinic period.
  • קִדֵּשׁ kidesh and קֻדַּשׁ kudash: The piel (active) and pual (passive) forms also mean both "to sanctify" (or be sanctified) and "to dedicate" (or was dedicated). Other meanings associated with this root are "to cleanse, purify" (as in Shemot 19:10), and then in Rabbinic Hebrew, to sanctify the Shabbat and holidays (i.e., kiddush) and to betroth (i.e., kiddushin). 
  • הקדיש hikdish and הוקדש hukdash: The hifil (active) and hufal (passive) forms in Modern Hebrew mean "to dedicate, allocate, designate, devote" - with either religious or secular connotations. But in earlier periods, it could mean "was set apart as holy, regarded as holy."
  • התקדש hitkadesh: In the hitpael (reflexive) form, the root means "to keep (oneself) separated" or "purified (oneself)." It can also mean "to become sanctified," and this is how it used in the Kaddish prayer, when we pray that God's name become sanctified.
We can see from these various definitions, that the root קדש has two primary connotations.

1) "to be holy", in the sense of "lofty, exalted", even "perfect", and perhaps closer to divine. This is captured well by the English word "holy" (and the related "hallow") which derive from an earlier root meaning "whole, uninjured" (and is ultimately cognate with "whole" as well.)

2) "to set apart, separate." Perhaps this meaning could better be expressed with the adjective "sacred," and the verb "sanctify", both of which derive from roots indicating separation or consecration.

There are certainly occasions where that sense overlaps with the "exalted, holy" sense. Something dedicated to God has an exalted status, and anything holy would be separate and distinct from an object without that position. But when there is no such overlap, it allows for the "forbidden" meaning in Biblical Hebrew, and the "designated" meaning in Modern Hebrew.

According to Klein's etymology, the second connotation is the original one:

Related to Ugar. qdsh (= sanctuary), Phoen. קדש (= holy), מקדש (= sanctuary, holy place), Aram.-Syr. קַדֵּשׁ (= he hallowed, sanctified, consecrated), Palm. קדש (= to sanctify, consecrate), Arab. qadusa (= was holy, was pure), quaddasa (= he hallowed, sanctified, consecrated; he went to Jerusalem), quds (= purity, holiness), al-quds (= Jerusalem; lit.: ‘the holy place’), Akka. quddushu (= to cleanse, to hallow, sanctify,), Aram.–Syr. קְדָשָׁא (= ear or nose ring; orig. ‘holy thing’). The orig. meaning of this base prob. was ‘to separate’.
This is also the view of the BDB dictionary, who writes that the original idea behind the root may have been "separation, withdrawal" and translates kodesh as "apartness, sacredness."

However, others, such as Gesenius, claim that the original meaning was connotation 1, noting that the kal form of the verb (presumably the most basic one), meant "to be pure, clean, prop. used of physical purity and cleanliness." This approach does find support in the cognates found in other Semitic languages (as quoted by Klein above.)

I'd like to end with a quote from the philosopher and theologian Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits. He wrote a lengthy essay entitled "The Concept of Holiness" in his book "Man and God: Studies in Biblical Theology." I can't review the entire essay here (I do recommend reading it), but I think the last paragraph is very profound:

In our own analysis, interest was concentrated on the meaning of the term as it is applied to God and man, but we have not lost sight of its purely ritualistic significance either. We have found that the word, holy, does not stand for divine nature in whatever way that nature is understood, it is not a mere “otiose epithet” of God; but it is a specific attribute of the deity and it is consistently used all through the Bible in that specific sense. Rather than indicating transcendence, it seems to be inseparable from the idea of immanence. Far from meaning inaccessibility, it reveals closeness and association. It is not the mysterium tremendum; if anything, it is its very opposite. 

According to Rabbi Berkovits, even if kadosh does refer to separateness, that does not mean that God is distant from us, but rather shows just how closely involved God is with humanity.

Monday, April 11, 2022


After writing about words deriving from the root פלג, a reader asked if there was a connection to the word pilegesh פילגש - "concubine." 

My first instinct was to consult Klein's Hebrew etymology dictionary, which did not make a connection to פלג, but had an interesting story nonetheless:

cp. Aram. פַלְקְתָא, Syr. פלקא (= concubine). cp. also Greek pallake, pallakis (= concubine). Avestic pairika (= beautiful women seducing pious men). All these words are certainly related, but it is difficult to establish the degree of their relationship to one another.

He also suggests a possible connection to the post-biblical Hebrew word palgas פלגס - which means "a sheep thirteen months old," and says that it derives from the Greek pallax, "youth, girl", which is a cognate of the Greek words pallake, pallakis that he mentioned in the pilegesh entry. 

In his CEDEL entry for "Pallas" (another name for the Greek goddess Athene), he expands on this further. He says the name of the goddess comes from the Greek pallados, "maiden" which is cognate with pallake, pallakis - "concubine."  After quoting some other Greek forms of the word, and the Avestic parika (quoted above), he mentions the Persian pari ("fairy", usually rendered as "peri" in English), and then suggests comparing with "Hebrew pileghesh, Aramaic pilaqta, 'concubine', and Arabic Bilqis, name of the queen of Sheba." And like his Hebrew entry, he isn't sure about how exactly these words are related. He notes that "the above cited Indo-European words are possibly Semitic loan words." 

Whether Hebrew borrowed from the Greek, or if the Greek borrowed from a Semitic language, that would make pilegesh cognate with the metallic element palladium, which was named after the asteroid Pallas, which in turn was named for the Greek goddess.

Other suggest additional languages as the source of pilegesh. BDB mentions a possible Hittite origin, and in the footnotes of the Ben Yehuda dictionary, Tur-Sinai writes that it's possible that Egyptian is the source. Egyptian is also mentioned in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT), which also quotes Chaim Rabin as concluding that the word is Philistine in origin (which could certainly have Greek influences.)

But surprisingly (at least to me) is that TDOT also proposes a connection to פלג:

We can give no satisfactory explanation for the origin of pileges (Greek pallax, pallakis; Latin pellex; Jewish-Aramaic palqeta; Syriac palqa; Arabic in the feminine proper name bilqis). Scholars have sought its home in both the Semitic and the Indo-European language families and have put forward many conjectures about mutual influence. Suggested etymologies include the Hebrew root plg, "divide, cleave," or a back-formation from Greek pallakis, pallake, pallax, originally "youth" or "girl," or from the same source plgs, "marriageable."

 Gesenius, after quoting the same Greek and Latin words, writes:

The etymology is obscure, but the origin may be sought with some appearance of truth in the idea of softness and pleasure, with the Phoenicio-Shemitic roots פלג, פלק. 

I don't really follow what he's writing here. First of all, I'm not familiar with the root פלק, and he doesn't include it in his dictionary, so maybe that was a typo. But I also don't see how to connect פלג with "softness and pleasure." And I don't see any mention of those terms in his entry for פלג, so I don't know where to go from there.

I took at look at Steinberg's Milon HaTanakh, who is usually happy to come up with a Hebrew origin for potentially foreign words, but he wasn't very helpful either. He does write that the Greek and Latin words we've mentioned were borrowed, via the Phoenicians, from Hebrew. But aside from rejecting Levita's idea that pilegesh comes from פלג-אשה (I guess "split-wife, half-wife"?), because it is "against the spirit of the language", he doesn't make a proposal of his own.

So to answer the initial question, I think that it doesn't seem too likely that pilegesh comes from peleg, but if it does, I'd need a better explanation (not just a guess) as to why.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

folk, pelach and peleg

I recently finished reading John McWhorter's book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. Throughout the book, he claims that English arrived at its current state through the influence of other languages. Much of the book talks about how the Celtic languages influenced the grammar of English. But at the end of the book, he builds on a theory by the German linguist Theo Vennemann, which argues that the Germanic languages (including English) are different from the other Indo-European languages because of interaction with speakers of a Semitic language - probably seafaring Phoenicians or Punics from Carthage.

I won't go into the whole argument, but it does bring up some interesting questions, and I don't think the theory is entirely unreasonable. One particular example that caught my eye was this one (from page 184):

... folk started in Germanic as a word referring to a division of an army, and only later morphed into meaning a tribe or a nation. The Proto-Germanic word was fukla; the early Semitic root for divide -- i.e., as in making a division -- was p-l-kh:


In the early Semitic language Assyrian, that root was used to mean district (i.e., a division of land), with the kh softening into a g (puluggu). In Hebrew today, a detachment is a plaga. Maybe in Northern Europe, that root came out as fulka in the same meaning.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has a different theory about the origin of "folk":

Old English folc "common people, laity; men; people, nation, tribe; multitude; troop, army," from Proto-Germanic *fulka- (source also of Old Saxon folc, Old Frisian folk, Middle Dutch volc, Dutch volk, Old High German folc, German Volk "people"). Perhaps originally "host of warriors:" Compare Old Norse folk "people," also "army, detachment;" and Lithuanian pulkas "crowd," Old Church Slavonic pluku "division of an army" (hence Russian polk "regiment"), both believed to have been borrowed from Proto-Germanic. Old English folcstede could mean both "dwelling-place" and "battlefield." According to Watkins, from PIE *ple-go-, suffixed form of root *pele- (1) "to fill," which would make it cognate with Greek plethos "people, multitude," and Latin plebes, "the populace, the common people." Boutkan thinks both the Germanic and Balto-Slavic could be a common borrowing from a substrate language.

The entry makes no mention of a Semitic connection. However, it does keep most of the cognate words to "folk" in the Germanic language family, and after quoting Watkins' theory about a connection to plethos and plebes (a theory which Klein rejects in his CEDEL, presumably because "people" and "multitude" were not the same as a division of warriors), there is mention of a "substrate language." That term refers to a language that influences another language by contact - which is exactly what McWhorter and Vennemann are saying that a Semitic language was in this case.

Whether or not they are the source of "folk", the two related Semitic roots that McWhorter mentioned - פלח (p-l-kh) and פלג (p-l-g) - gave us many Hebrew words.

The root פלח originally meant "to cleave, split", as McWhorter mentioned. That meaning is maintained in Hebrew in the word פֶּלַח pelach, meaning "section, slice of fruit."  But from there it developed into the specific sense of "to plow, till the ground." Arabic has a cognate to this meaning, falahah, which led to fallah "plowman", the source of the word for peasant, "fellah", which has entered into English. (No connection to "fellow", though.)

From working and serving the land, פלח expanded to a more religious meaning of divine worship, similar to how the root עבד can indicate both working the land and worshipping God (or "cultivate" and "cult" in English). This sense is most commonly seen in the word (originally from Aramaic) פולחן pulchan - "service." Pulchan originally was any kind of service, then became religious service / divine worship, but in Modern Hebrew it has returned to a more secular meaning, of any kind of ritual indicating extreme admiration and devotion (like a cult).

The cognate פלג provides even more words. As with פלח, the root means "cleave, split, divide." Here are a sample of some of the words deriving from that root:

  • פִּלֵּג pileg - "to divide, separate"
  • הִפְלִיג hiflig - "to depart (by ship), to set sail"
  • התפלג hitpaleg - "to split"
  • פֶּלֶג peleg - "section, faction", also "brook, tributary" 
  • פְּלֻגָּה pluga - "army division" specifically a "company"
  • פְּלֻגְתָּא plugta - "disagreement, argument". This is from Aramaic, and has a literary connotation, and is commonly found in the phrase בַּר-פְּלֻגְתָּא bar plugta - "scholarly opponent."
  • מִפְלָגָה miflaga - "political party"
So what we have seen here is how many Hebrew words might be related to the English word "folk". And that's no folk etymology!

Sunday, March 27, 2022

ghoul and gorilla

The English word "ghoul" derives from Arabic. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for ghoul:

1786, goul, in the English translation of William Beckford's Orientalist novel "Vathek" (which was written in French), from Arabic ghul, an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses, from ghala "he seized."

The Arabic ghul as "demon" also gives us the name of the star Algol which is also known as the "Demon Star." The full name in Arabic is raʾs al-ghūl  - "the head of the demon" (because as part of the constellation of Perseus, it is the head of Medusa that Perseus is holding.) This name entered more modern mythology as a villain in the Batman comic books -  Ra's al Ghul.

Stahl, in his etymological dictionary of Arabic, quotes the historian and linguist Isaac Yahuda as saying that the word "gorilla" may have the same origin. While there is consensus on how "gorilla" entered English, its earlier history is unclear. For example, here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry:

1847, applied to a species of large apes (Troglodytes gorilla) by U.S. missionary Thomas Savage, from Greek gorillai, plural of name given to wild, hairy beings (now supposed to have been chimpanzees) in a Greek translation of Carthaginian navigator Hanno's account of his voyage along the northwest coast of Africa, c. 500 B.C.E. Allegedly an African word.

In his book Mishley Arav ("Proverbs of Arabia") Yahuda identifies ghul with "gorilla". I don't know how likely it is that Hanno would have encountered Arabic speakers in that part of Africa, but perhaps this was a cognate in a different Semitic, or Afroasiatic language. Or maybe Arabic speakers later conflated their ghul demon with the scary gorilla. (See here for another example of that association in Arabic).

Yahuda also claims that gilul גלול - the Biblical Hebrew word for idols - is also cognate with ghul. Presumably, he's referring to the ancient practice of worshiping demons, which the Bible prohibits and denigrates. 

However, I couldn't find any other source that makes that claim. The popular view is Klein's position, that gilul refers to rolled (גלל) dung:

גִּלּוּל m.n. idol. [According to some scholars related to גָּלָל (= dung); according to Baudissin and to others גִּלּוּלִים derives from גלל (= to roll), and orig. meant ‘rolled blocks’. cp. BAram. אֶבֶן גְּלָל (= square stones), and see גּֽלָל. The form גִּלּוּל was influenced by שִׁקּוּץ (= abomination).] 

I'm still curious if ghul has a more solid Hebrew cognate. I didn't see anyone who made this connection, but Klein does discuss the root עול - "to give suck" (like a nursing mother), and says that it is "related to Arabic ghālat (= she gave suck)." Could ghala ("he seized") perhaps be related to ghālat? A nursing baby latches on to, "seizes", the mother. Maybe? If so, it would provide us with the words עוּל and עולל, meaning "baby, infant." 

Sunday, March 20, 2022


Last week on Purim we read the book of Esther, and next week we start the month of April. It turns out that Esther and April have more in common than just sharing the same few weeks.

One of my first posts on Balashon was about the etymology of the name Esther. Here's what I wrote then:
The name Esther - אסתר - is connected to the Babylonian deity Ishtar (yes, the same name as the notoriously unsuccessful movie.) They both derive from the Indo-European root ster, and the related Semitic root ʿṯtr which gave us the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Phoenician goddess Astarte עשתרת. That same root gives us the English words star, astral, stellar and disaster (not in the stars.)

I briefly mentioned Aphrodite, but didn't focus any further on that name. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this origin:

Greek goddess of love and beauty, personification of female grace, 1650s; the ancients derived her name from Greek aphros "foam," from the story of her birth, but the word is perhaps rather from Phoenician Ashtaroth (Assyrian Ishtar). Beekes writes, "As the goddess seems to be of oriental origin ..., the name probably comes from the East too. .... It may have entered Greek via another language." He concludes, "[I]t seems possible that the name came from the one languages [sic] which on historical grounds we should expect to be relevant: Cypriot Phoenician." 

Klein agrees that the idea that the name derives from aphros ("foam") is a folk etymology, but does suggest that perhaps her association with foam caused the change in pronunciation from Ashtoreth to Aphrodite. He gives other examples of "sh" turning into "f." He points out that garlic in Hebrew is שום shum, but in Arabic it is either thum or fum. Similarly, the Russian name Feodor derives from the Greek Theodore.

From Aphrodite, according to some theories, we get the name of the month of April. Klein writes that April, in Latin Aprilis, comes from Greek Ap(h)ro, a short form of Aphrodite, and so was "the month of Aphrodite." The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests (among other possibilities), an Etruscan origin, but still coming from Aphrodite. 

So we've shown connections between Esther and April, but one word I was surprised to discover isn't related is Easter, which usually falls in this time period as well. However, here is Easter's etymology:

Old English Easterdæg, from Eastre (Northumbrian Eostre), from Proto-Germanic *austron-, "dawn," also the name of a goddess of fertility and spring, perhaps originally of sunrise, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, from *aust- "east, toward the sunrise" (compare east), from PIE root *aus- (1) "to shine," especially of the dawn.

I guess that connection wasn't in the stars... 


Tuesday, March 15, 2022


Several years ago, I wrote about the root gazar גזר - "to cut". After pointing out that it's not related to gezer גֶּזֶר - "carrot", I pointed out a number of Hebrew and Arabic words that likely derive from the root and its cognates.

Well, I recently discovered another word that may have גזר as its etymology: gizzard.

Admittedly, the Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't offer a Semitic origin:

"stomach of a bird," late 14c., from Old French gisier "entrails, giblets (of a bird)" (13c., Modern French gésier), probably from Vulgar Latin *gicerium, a dissimilation of Latin gigeria (neuter plural) "cooked entrails of a fowl," a delicacy in ancient Rome, from PIE *yekwr- "liver" (see hepatitis). The unetymological -d was added 1500s (perhaps on analogy of -ard words). 

However, Klein, in his CEDEL entry, does offer one. He also writes that the English derives from the French, but from there offers a different Latin one:

From Latin gizeria, 'cooked entrails of poultry', which is probably a Punic-Phoenician-Hebrew loan word. Compare Hebrew gezarim, construct state gizrei, 'pieces of sacrificed animals', plural of gezer, 'anything cut, a piece,' from the stem of gazar, 'he cut, divided'.

I assume that Klein's inspiration for gezarim being "pieces of sacrificed animals" comes from the story of the Covenant of the Pieces, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice a number of animals, and then after Abraham prophesized,

וַיְהִי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בָּאָה וַעֲלָטָה הָיָה וְהִנֵּה תַנּוּר עָשָׁן וְלַפִּיד אֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָבַר בֵּין הַגְּזָרִים הָאֵלֶּה׃ 

When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces [ha-gezarim]. (Bereshit 15:17)

That is the only mention of gezer indicating a sacrifice in the Bible.

You may have noticed that Etymonline has the Latin gigeria, and Klein has gizeria. That is also addressed in his CEDEL:

In Latin, gigeria, a collateral from of gizeria, z has been assimilated to the preceding g.

From searching through Google Books (see here, here, and here), it seems that it's not clear which word Latin used - gigeria or gizeria - so that may have added to the confusion over the etymology.