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.