Monday, January 31, 2022


The Hebrew word naar נער has a number of meanings - two verbs and a noun. Let's look and see if they are related.

One verb means "to shake" or "to shake out." It appears 11 times with that meaning in the Bible. Sometimes the meaning is more than the simple "shake" as in Shemot 14:27, where it says that God "hurled" וַיְנַעֵר the Egyptians into the sea.

Here's Klein's entry for that meaning:

shake, shake out, shake off, stir.
    — Qal - נָעַר he shook, shook out, shook off, stirred.
    — Niph. - נִנְעַר 1 he shook himself free. 2 was shaken out; PBH 3 he bestirred himself; PBH 4 was poured out, was emptied.
    — Pi. - נִעֵר 1 he shook out; 2 he stirred up.
    — Pu. - נֻעַר NH 1 was shaken; PBH 2 was stirred; PBH 3 was emptied.
    — Hith. - הִתְנַעֵר 1 he shook himself; NH 2 he bestirred himself.
    — Hiph. - הִנְעִיר he encouraged. [Aram. נְעַר (= he shook, stirred), Syr. נְעַר (= he poured out), whence נָעוֹרָא (= waterwheel). Arab. nā‘ūra (= waterwheel with buckets, noria), is a Syr. loan word. cp. Arab. na‘ara (= it spurted, gushed forth — said of the blood of a vein), na‘āra (= earthen jug, pot).

Klein doesn't include it (perhaps it wasn't common in his time), but the hitpael form התנער hitnaer today means "to shirk" or "to renounce responsibility."

The other verb means "to bray, roar, growl" and only appears once in the Bible:

יַחְדָּו כַּכְּפִרִים יִשְׁאָגוּ נָעֲרוּ כְּגוֹרֵי אֲרָיוֹת

"Like lions, they roar together, they growl [na'aru] like lion cubs. (Yirmiyahu 51:38). 

While in this verse the metaphor is for the growl of a lion, in Rabbinic Hebrew the verb was designated for the bray of a donkey, and so it continues today. 

And here's what Klein writes about this meaning:

Aram.-Syr. נְעַר (= roared, growled, brayed), Arab. na‘ara (= rattled), Akka. nēru (= to growl), nā’iru (= roaring)

But by far the most common appearance of naar in the Bible is as a noun, meaning "boy, lad, youth", with sometimes the more specific sense of "servant" or "soldier." There are 240 occurrences with this meaning, and another 63 for the female form נערה na'ara (girl, maiden, servant.) Related words in Hebrew are noar נוער - "youth" and neurim נעורים - "adolescence."

So are any of these meanings related to each other? Klein does not connect the two verbs, but presents two theories as to the origin of the noun. 

The first says that the noun, meaning "youth," comes from the verb meaning "to shake", which he extends to the sense "to throw":

 נַֽעַר would lit. mean ‘that which is brought forth, young’; compare Ger. werfen, ‘to throw’, in the sense ‘to bring forth, young’

The other theory connects it to the braying and roaring usage, as an "allusion to the roughness of the voice at the beginning of puberty."

One word that is nearly certainly unrelated to any of these is the Yiddish nar meaning "fool" (the source of the familiar Yiddish word narishkeit - "foolishness."  The Yiddish nar derives from the German narr of the same meaning. The etymology of narr (or the related narre or narro) isn't clear. Some say it comes from the Latin naris, meaning "nose" (ultimately the source of the English "nasal"), developing from "sneering (with the nose)" to "mocking, jeering" to "fool." In any case, this word has been in German for a long time - which means that it's much more likely that Yiddish borrowed it from German instead of German borrowing it from Yiddish.

Our youth might need education, but we don't need to make them the source of all foolishness...

Sunday, January 23, 2022

yashfeh and diaper

In Shemot 28:15-20, there is a description of the breastplate of the high priest - the choshen mishpat. The breastplate contained 12 stones, in four rows of three. 

The identities of many of the stones listed are highly debated. It's very difficult to find two translations that render each of the stones in the same way. But one stone almost always gets the same translation, the yashfeh יָשְׁפֵה of Shemot 28:20. All the English translations I consulted had it as "jasper."

This should not be surprising, as the English word "jasper" very likely derives from yashfeh or a cognate Semitic word. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for jasper:

precious stone, c. 1300, from Anglo-French jaspre, Old French jaspre, with unetymological -r-, a variant of jaspe (12c.), from Latin iaspidem (nominative iaspis), from Greek iaspis "jasper," via an Oriental language (compare Hebrew yashpeh, Akkadian yashupu).

Klein has a similar entry for yashfeh:

Probably borrowed from yashupū (also ashpū), whence also Syriac יָשְׁפֵה, יַשֽׁפָא, Persian yashm, whence Arabic  yashb (= jasper). Greek. iaspis, whence Latin iaspis, is a Sem. loan word.

All of this isn't so surprising. Gems were rare, and so it makes sense that they would retain the name from where they came. However, the next development surprised me.

In Klein's CEDEL, he has the following entry for the word "diaper":

Middle English diaper, diapery from Old French diapre, from earlier diaspre (whence French diapre, 'diapered, variegated'), from Middle Latin diasprum (whence also Italian diaspro, Old Provencal diaspre, Spanish diaspero, Portugese diaspero, diaspro), 'jasper', from Latin iaspis, from Greek iaspis, 'jasper', ultimately from Hebrew yashpheh

I suppose I can see how the words are similar (although he doesn't explain where the added "d" comes from), but what is the connection between the meanings of "jasper" and "diaper"?

This site, quoting Webster's New World College dictionary, provides a possible explanation:

ME < OFr diapre, diaspre, kind of ornamented cloth < ML diasprum, flowered cloth, altered (after dia-, dia-, because of ML pronun. of initial j-) < jaspis < L iaspis, jasper

So it seems that the connection here is that just like jasper is an ornamental gem, diapers were originally ornamental cloth. A different gem actually appears in the first (archaic) definition that dictionary provides:

a.  Archaic: cloth or fabric with a woven pattern of repeated small figures, such as diamonds
b. a napkin, towel, etc. of such cloth
c. such a pattern, as in art
a. a soft, absorbent cloth folded and arranged between the legs and around the waist of a baby to absorb and contain excretions
b. a piece of absorbent material with a waterproof outer layer, having the same function but intended to be discarded after a single use

It's interesting to see how the meaning of diaper progressed to an item of less and less value - from a fancy ornamented cloth, to a cloth in general, to a cloth used to wrap around babies, to the disposable kind popular today.

I'm just still not sure I understand why it begins with "d." For that, perhaps its worth looking at the Online Etymology entry for diaper. While they don't accept the "jasper" connection, they do say that the prefix "dia-" meant "thoroughly, interspersed", which could apply to the gem shapes (jasper) as much to the "white" that they suggest:

mid-14c., "costly silken fabric of one color having a repeated pattern of the same color woven into it," from Old French diapre, diaspre "ornamental cloth; flowered, patterned silk cloth," perhaps via Medieval Latin diasprum from Medieval Greek diaspros "thoroughly white," or perhaps "white interspersed with other colors," from dia "thoroughly" (see dia-) + aspros "white."

Now while the choshen was in fact a fancy woven cloth with stones interspersed, I don't recommend you call it a "diaper" unless you're willing to face some serious questions...