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.

Monday, March 07, 2022

ikar, akar and akeret bayit

Let's take a look at the Hebrew root עקר. As a verb, in the kal form it means "to uproot, extract, displace" and in the piel form means "to neuter, spay, sterilize."  The adjective עקר akar, or in the feminine akara עקרה means "infertile, barren." And the noun ikar (spelled either עִקָּר or עיקר) means "essence, main thing/part, gist", with the associated adjective ikari עיקרי meaning "essential, fundamental, major" and the related ikaron עקרון - "principle" and ekroni עקרוני - "of principle, basic."

What is the connection between these various meanings?

They all derive from the sense of "root." That is the original meaning of ikar. That sense isn't found in Biblical Hebrew (although a related word, eker - "offshoot", appears in Vayikra 25:47), but is common in Aramaic, and can be found as such in the Aramaic sections of Daniel (4:12,20,23). Those verses all have the phrase עִקַּר שׇׁרְשׁוֹהִי, which is generally translated as "the stump with its roots." But since both words mean root in Aramaic, perhaps a more precise translation would be "root of the roots" or "the main root." From Aramaic, ikar entered rabbinic Hebrew, where it has the literal meaning of root (for example in Mishna Maasrot 3:10) and the more metaphorical sense of the "important thing" (as in Mishna Avot 1:17). 

English relates to the word "root" similarly, with it also having the meaning "the cause, source or origin of something." And just as in English, the verb "to root" means "to pull up by the roots, to uproot", so too does the Hebrew verb akar mean "to extract, uproot" (see for example Tzefania 2:4 and Kohelet 3:2). This is an example of a contronym (a homonym which is also an antonym, and we've seen them before).

From here we get to the words related to "barrenness." Klein says that they are "probably a special sense development" from the meaning "to pluck, root up, remove." Gesenius implies that this may derive from an original sense of "castration." (He makes a similar connection between shoresh שורש - "root" and saris סריס - "eunuch.")

One phrase that doesn't appear to be connected to any of the above is akeret bayit עקרת בית - "homemaker, housewife." The phrase originates from a biblical verse, Tehillim 113:9:

מוֹשִׁיבִי עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת אֵם־הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה הַלְלוּ־יָהּ

This is a difficult verse to translate. The new Koren translation offers:

"He sets the childless woman in her home as a joyous mother of children. Hallelujah."

Meaning that the phrase akeret habayit means "the barren woman in the house", and (as Ibn Ezra writes) it's not a conjunctive phrase at all. Others see akeret habayit as one phrase, meaning "the barren one of the house." Even if more translations today suggest the first possibility, the latter one seems to be more popularly accepted. (The grammatical structure does seem to suggest semichut, so I can see why). 

From this understanding of the phrase, a drasha developed, saying that this/the woman is not barren, but rather the ikar - the essence - of the home. For example, Bereshit 29:31 says that Rachel was barren (akara). The midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 71:2) reinterprets the verse to say that Rachel was the ikar, the main part of the household: וְרָחֵל עֲקָרָה, רָחֵל הָיְתָה עִקָּרוֹ שֶׁל בַּיִת.

It's not exactly clear when the phrase came to mean "housewife," (for a more detailed history see here) but it was very likely influenced by this  midrash and others like it (see also Bamidbar Rabba 14:8). However, instead of saying that the essence of the home was the wife, the meaning shifted to "the main part of the (this) woman is in the home." An early example of this is Rashi's commentary on Gittin 52a. The Talmud there mentions that Rabbi Yosei never called his wife "his wife" but rather "his home." Rashi explains his reasoning because "all the needs of the home are taken care of by her hands, and she is the essence of the home."