Tuesday, March 14, 2023

cumin and kimmel

The connection between the English "cumin" and the Hebrew kamon כַּמּוֹן (often pronounced today kamun כַּמּוּן) is broadly accepted. 

Here's Klein's CEDEL entry for "cumin":

Middle English cumin, comin, from Old English cymen, cymyn, from Latin cuminum, from Greek kyminon, which is of Semitic origin. Compare Hebrew kammon, of same meaning, Aramaic kammona, Syriac kmmuna, Ugaritic kmn, Akkadian kamunu, Punic chaman

He notes that the word entered Mycenean Greek as early as the 15th century BCE.

We find the Hebrew kamon twice in the Bible, in two verses in the same chapter:

הֲלוֹא אִם־שִׁוָּה פָנֶיהָ וְהֵפִיץ קֶצַח וְכַמֹּן יִזְרֹק וְשָׂם חִטָּה שׂוֹרָה וּשְׂעֹרָה נִסְמָן וְכֻסֶּמֶת גְּבֻלָתוֹ׃

"When he has smoothed its surface,
Does he not rather broadcast black caraway
And scatter cumin,
Or set wheat in a row,
Barley in a strip,
And emmer in a patch?" (Yeshaya 28:25) 

כִּי לֹא בֶחָרוּץ יוּדַשׁ קֶצַח וְאוֹפַן עֲגָלָה עַל־כַּמֹּן יוּסָּב כִּי בַמַּטֶּה יֵחָבֶט קֶצַח וְכַמֹּן בַּשָּׁבֶט׃

"So, too, black caraway is not threshed with a threshing board,
Nor is the wheel of a threshing sledge rolled over cumin;
But black caraway is beaten out with a stick
And cumin with a rod." (28:27)

These verses also include the word ketzach קֶצַח - translated here as "black caraway". Other translations have "black cumin". In modern Hebrew, ketzach is identified with nigella.

We can see, therefore, that cumin and caraway can sometimes be compared to the same thing. This certainly isn't because of their flavors (which are very different), but because their seeds look similar. 

The confusion between the two spice seeds likely led to German taking their word for caraway, kümmel, from the Latin word for cumin - cuminum. In Yiddish this became kimmel, and in Hebrew it is the popular word for caraway: קִימֶל. (The official word for caraway in Hebrew is the similar sounding k'rav'ya כְּרַוְיָה, which goes back to the Talmud, but I've never heard anyone use it.)

And if you're wondering - the surname of the comedian Jimmy Kimmel has the same origin. He descends from German immigrants whose name was originally Kümmel.




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