Sunday, November 20, 2022

pulmus and polemic

The connection between the English word "polemic" and the Hebrew פּוּלְמוּס pulmus seems fairly obvious. They both mean "controversy, dispute, debate" and both ultimately derive from the Greek polemos. Cased closed, right?

Well, I, for one, was surprised to learn that while what I wrote above is true, they each shared an earlier meaning, no longer in use. The Greek polemos meant "war", and that was the original meaning of both pulmus and polemic. 

Here are the Online Etymology Dictionary entries for "polemic" both as noun and adjective:

polemic (n.)

1630s, "controversial argument or discussion, a controversy," from French polémique (16c./17c.), noun use of adjective meaning "disputatious, controversial" (see polemic (adj.)). From 1670s as "a disputant, one who writes or argues in opposition to another."

polemic (adj.)

"of or pertaining to controversy," 1640s, from French polémique "disputatious, controversial," or directly from Greek polemikos "of war, warlike, belligerent; skilled in war, fit for service; like an enemy, stirring up hostility," from polemos "war," a word of unknown origin. 

And here is Klein's entry for pulmus:

פּוּלְמוֹס, פֻּלְמוֹס m.n. (pl. פּוּלְמוֹסִים, also פּוּלְמוֹסִיּוֹת) PBH 1 war. NH 2 polemic. [From Gk. polemos (= war), which is related to pelemixein (= to shake, cause to tremble), from IE * pelem–, enlargement of base *pel– (= to shake, swing).] 

We find the meaning "war" in a number of Talmudic sources, such as Mishna Sotah 9:14:

בַּפֻּלְמוֹס שֶׁל אַסְפַּסְיָנוּס גָּזְרוּ עַל עַטְרוֹת חֲתָנִים, וְעַל הָאֵרוּס. בַּפֻּלְמוֹס שֶׁל טִיטוּס גָּזְרוּ עַל עַטְרוֹת כַּלּוֹת, וְשֶׁלֹא יְלַמֵּד אָדָם אֶת בְּנוֹ יְוָנִית. בַּפֻּלְמוֹס הָאַחֲרוֹן גָּזְרוּ שֶׁלֹּא תֵצֵא הַכַּלָּה בָּאַפִּרְיוֹן בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר, וְרַבּוֹתֵינוּ הִתִּירוּ שֶׁתֵּצֵא הַכַּלָּה בָּאַפִּרְיוֹן בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר:   

In the war [pulemus] of Vespasian the Sages decreed upon the crowns of bridegrooms, i.e., that bridegrooms may no longer wear crowns, and upon the drums, meaning they also banned the playing of drums. In the war of Titus they also decreed upon the crowns of brides, and they decreed that a person should not teach his son Greek. In the last war, meaning the bar Kokheva revolt, they decreed that a bride may not go out in a palanquin inside the city, but our Sages permitted a bride to go out in a palanquin inside the city, as this helps the bride maintain her modesty. 

We have a citation above as to the earliest appearance of "polemic" meaning dispute in English. When did the meaning change in Hebrew?

Kutcher (Milim V'Toldotehen, 31) writes that the change from "war" to "war of words" was a result of influence from European languages like German and English. However, he doesn't say exactly when. 

Ben-Yehuda has no entry for pulmus in his dictionary at all - which isn't surprising since he avoided including in it words that he considered "foreign."

The Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language has the earliest "modern" meaning in a 1911 work.  That surprised me, since I assumed that the polemics written in the Middle Ages to defend Judaism were known as pulmusim, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

So as so frequently happens, even the most obvious words leave much for me to discover. 

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