Sunday, January 14, 2024

tiron and turai

After a soldier enlists in the Israeli army, there are two words to describe him (or her, although I'm providing the male forms of the words): טִירוֹן tiron - "new recruit" and טוּרַאי turai - "private" (his initial rank). While the two words apply to a similar time in the military, and look somewhat similar, they are actually not related etymologically.

Tiron entered Hebrew in the rabbinic period, borrowed from the Latin tiro. The English word "tyro" has the same meaning and origin:

"a beginner in learning anything," 1610s, from Medieval Latin tyro, variant of Latin tiro (plural tirones) "young soldier, recruit, beginner"

That Online Etymology Dictionary entry says that the pre-Latin origin is unknown, but Nicholas Ostler, in his book Ad Infinitum, says derives from Etruscan, which provided other military terms to Latin as well.

The more general sense of "novice" is seen in the early uses of tiron in Hebrew. For example, see this midrash:

 בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁנִּגְלָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל משֶׁה טִירוֹן הָיָה משֶׁה לַנְּבוּאָה

"At the moment that The Holy One blessed be He appeared to Moses, Moses was a novice at prophecy" (Shemot Rabbah 3:1)

Today as well tiron can have that meaning, but it seems to me that it may be more influenced from its use in the military (since so many Israelis serve in the army) as opposed to its more ancient origins.

In contrast, turai is of much more recent coinage. Linguists such as Gilad and Rosenthal note that it was coined by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Edwin Samuel in World War I. Rosenthal is quoted here:

In later years, Ze’ev Jabotinsky – who served in the Jewish Legion in World War I together with Edwin Samuel, the son of the first High Commissioner of Palestine Herbert Samuel – published a two-page glossary of commands in Hebrew. One of their innovations was the rank of turai (private) since they marched in line formation (tor).

Others, such as Kutscher, point out that turai was likely influenced by the Russian word for "private" (not surprising considering Jabotinsky's background.)

That Russian word is рядовой (ryadovoy), related to the word meaning "row." It also has the sense of "rank and file," which has a similar meaning in English:

1590s, in reference to the horizontal and vertical lines of soldiers marching in formation, from rank (n.) in the military sense of "number of soldiers drawn up in a line abreast" (1570s) + file (n.1). Thence generalized to "common soldiers" (1796) and "common people, general body" of any group (1860).

So based on the Hebrew tur טור - "row", Jabotinsky and Samuel came up with turai. Rosenthal adds that there was actually a suggestion to change it to shurai שוראי or shuran שורן, from the synonym for row in Hebrew, shura שורה, but that was never adopted.

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