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!

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