Sunday, June 30, 2024

Nukhba and Nahbi

I was curious about the etymology of Nukhba, the Hamas special forces unit that carried out horrific terrorist attacks on October 7.

The root n-kh-b in Arabic means "choose, select, elect," and so nukhba is an elite military unit. It's a fairly common root in Arabic, appearing in many words related to elections. However, I couldn't fnd any Hebrew cognates. 

The Arabic Etymological Dictionary, while including words from that root, didn't provide any additonal Semitic cognates. It left it unknown with the entry (the etymology and cognates go in the brackets):

nachaba: choose, select [?]

I didn't see any entries in Stahl's Arabic dictionary, and a search of Klein's dictionary for related Arabic words also came up blank.

I was about to give up, when I found this brief mention in the Ben Yehuda dictionary:


ממנו אולי השֵם נַחְבִּי.

בערב' יש שני שרשים, נחב نحب במשמ' בכיה חזקה, ונח'ב نخب במשמ' בחירה ובררה.

This was a strange entry. It was for the root נחב nakhav for which the only word provided was perhaps the Biblical name "Nahbi". Nahbi, the son of Vofsi, appears only once in the Tanakh, in Bamidbar 13:14. He was one of the spies - the representative from the tribe of Naftali.

The Ben-Yehuda dictionary notes that in Arabic there are two (possibly related) roots. One is nahab which means "strong cry." The other is our nakhab, meaning "choice, select." 

I still don't exactly understand why this hypothetical root was included in the dictionary, which might have been the source of a name, and may have a connection to one of two cognates. But it does at least leave the door open that Nahbi is related to nukhba, which could make sense, considering he was a prince of the tribe.

Once again, I looked to see if there was support for this theory. I suppose I was surprised how little is written (or at least I could find) about the name Nahbi (even speculation). The Encyclopedia Mikrait (EM) and Daat Mikra both said that no convincing etymology has been found. The EM did note the scholar Martin Noth, who proposed it is related to an Arabic root meaning "coward."

Noth's suggestion is also mentioned by James Barr in his essay, "The Symbolism of Names in the Old Testament." (also found here). On page 23 (of the document), in footnote 2, he writes:

Noth, p. 229, n. 12, derives from Arabic nakhb with the sense "fearful"; but one could also consider the sense "choice" on the same Arabic basis, and also derivation from a quite different root, cf. Huffmon, Amorite Peraonal Names in the Mari Texts, p. 189.

So Barr does entertain the connection. He also points us in the direction of Huffmon, who mentions yet another Arabic root, nhb, this time meaning "vow, implore, lament" (perhaps the last of these words equals the "strong cry" mentioned in Ben Yehuda).

One other suggestion for Nahbi doesn't include the letter nun as part of the root. Rather it says the name comes from the root חבא, meaning to hide. Prof. Alexander Rofe quotes his teacher Umberto Cassuto as noting:

Sethur, derived from the root str (to hide), brought to mind the son of Vophsi, Nahbi, from the root hb', with the same meaning. 

Cassuto was pointing out that the name before Nahbi in the list of spies was סְתוּר בֶּן־מִיכָאֵל, whose name also indicates hiding. If that's the case, both names implying hiding would be fitting for spies.

That same theory is proposed by the BDB dictionary, as well as in a midrash in Sotah 34b:

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, אַף אָנוּ נֹאמַר: ״נַחְבִּי בֶּן וׇפְסִי״, ״נַחְבִּי״ — שֶׁהֶחְבִּיא דְּבָרָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא.

Rabbi Yoḥanan says: We can also say an interpretation of the name: “Nahbi the son of Vophsi” (Numbers 13:14): He is called Nahbi, as he concealed [heḥbi] the statement of the Holy One, Blessed be He, that the land is good, by delivering a distorted description of it.

All of these theories testify to the fact that other than the two spies who brought a faithful report of the land (Yehoshua and Kalev), the rest were soon forgotten and so their legacies are obscure. I hope that someday soon we can say the same about the Nukhba terrorists as well.


Sunday, June 23, 2024


I was curious about the origin of the Israeli slang term fukes פוּקְס, meaning "stroke of luck," referring to something positive that happened just by chance. 

My first thought was to look in Ruvik Rosenthal's Dictionary of Hebrew Slang. He said it came from the English "flux", and originated as a lucky shot in billiards:

But as hard as I tried, I couldn't find any connection between "flux" and the game of billiards.

I put the question aside for a while, and then came back to it again after a few weeks. A new search for the origin of fukes once again led me to Rosenthanl, but this time to his websites (he has a few). And this time, the answer was much more obvious:

For example here, he wrote:

And here

It turned out there was a typo in the printed book. The word wasn't "flux" but "flukes." He describes how Hebrew speakers during the British Mandate (in form of the language he calls "Finglish", meaning "Palestinian English") adopted the billiard term "flukes", and ignoring the plural form, and dropping the "L" sound, turned it into the singular fukes.

Proof of this comes from another slang term, hitfalek הִתְפַלֵּק, which is the verb form of fukes (meaning to do something unintentionally), but does preserve the "L" of "fluke" (and doesn't include the plural "S".)

Fluke is indeed a billiards term. The Online Etymology Dictionary has these entries for the different meanings of fluke, which may be related (our meaning is number 2):

fluke (n.1)

"flat end of an arm of an anchor," 1560s, perhaps from fluke (n.3) "flatfish," on resemblance of shape, or from Low German flügel "wing." Transferred meaning "whale's tail" (in plural, flukes) is by 1725, so called from resemblance.

fluke (n.2)

"lucky stroke, chance hit," 1857, also flook, said to be originally a lucky shot at billiards, of uncertain origin. Century Dictionary connects it with fluke (n.1) in reference to the whale's use of flukes to get along rapidly (to go a-fluking or some variant of it, "go very fast," is in Dana, Smyth, and other sailors' books of the era). OED (2nd ed. print) allows only that it is "Possibly of Eng. dialectal origin."

fluke (n.3)

"flatfish," Old English floc "flatfish," related to Old Norse floke "flatfish," flak "disk, floe," from Proto-Germanic *flok-, from PIE root *plak- (1) "to be flat." The parasite worm (1660s) so called from resemblance of shape.

Further discussion of the origin of "fluke" can be found in this post on the Inky Fool blog. 

Certainly fluke has moved from billiards to a more general sense of an unexpected or accidental stroke of luck, in both English and in Hebrew via fukes.

I must conclude with a quote from one of my favorite televison shows, The Office. In the episode Trivia, the generally bumbling character Kevin gives an answer in a trivia contest which brings his team to win the game. Everyone doubted him, thinking it was just dumb luck, and in response he gives this retort:

Look, I know it's easy to say tonight was just a fluke, and maybe it was, but here's a piece of trivia: a fluke is one of the most common fish in the sea. So if you go fishing for a fluke, chances are, you just might catch one.

Wisdom for the ages.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

dayal, doula, and degel - update

 I have a long list of words to write about. Today I started looking into one of them, and then only later did it turn out that I had already written about it. This happens occasionally - with nearly 700 posts, and often several words beyond the primary word discussed in each, I suppose it’s to be expected. I’m just relieved when I discover it before I write the whole thing. 

This time, however, I found some new information, so I thought I’d write a post that updates the earlier one.

I had intended to write a post about the words dayal דַּיָּל - “steward” and “doula.” I was planning on pointing out how they share a common origin. But I had already discussed it in my post on meltzar מֶלְצַר, another word meaning “steward”:

However, as Elon Gilad writes here, Ben Yehuda did not want the word meltzar used for "waiter" in Modern Hebrew. He preferred dayal דייל (feminine dayelet דיילת). He coined dayal on the basis of the Talmudic Aramaic word dayala דיילא - "attendant", which in turn derives from the Greek word for slave or servant - doulos. Doulos is also the root of the English word doula, which literally means "female slave".

However, as happened on more than one occasion, Ben Yehuda's plans did not win out, and people continued referring to waiters as meltzarim. But his word dayal was eventually redeemed - when El Al airlines was founded in 1948, they needed a specialized word for someone attending to passengers - and so a few years later, dayal became the Hebrew word for steward. Quite the journey for these words!

But as noted, I forgot that post, and began to research. I found Klein’s entry for dayal:

NH waiter, steward (on an airplane). [Nomen opificis coined by Eliezer ben Yehudah (1858–1922) from JAram. דַּיָּלָא (= attendant, waiter), which derives from Gk. doylos (= slave), a word standing for doelos and derived from Aegean doëro (= slave).]

As well as the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for doula:

"woman trained to assist another woman during childbirth and provide support to the family after the baby is born," by 1972, a coinage in anthropology, from Modern Greek doule, from ancient Greek doule "servant-woman," fem. of doulos "slave, servant," which probably is a word of Pre-Greek origin.

That last sentence was interesting. When Etymonline says “Pre-Greek,” it sometimes refers to a Semitic etymology. But could that be the case here?

It turns out that it just may be. The Wiktionary entry for δοῦλος (doulos) has this interesting etymology:

Related to Mycenaean Greek 𐀈𐀁𐀫 (do-e-ro /⁠dohelos⁠/),[1] possibly from Canaanite *dōʾēlu “servant, attendant” (compare Late Babylonian 𒁕𒀝𒂵𒇻 (daggālu, “subject, one who waits on another, does their bidding”), Aramaic דַּיָּילָא (dayyālā), Hebrew דייל (dayyal, “flight attendant, store clerk”)).[2]

According to Parpola,[3] the word δοῦλος is related to the ethnonym Dahae (found as Δάοι, Δάαι, Δαι or Δάσαι in Greek sources) and thus related to Sanskrit दस्यु (dasyu, “bandit, brigand”) and Sanskrit दास (dāsa) which originally meant 'demon' and later also 'slave' or 'fiend'. 

The first theory is the one that interested me - since it proposes a Semitic origin. However, it seemed rather mixed up, giving the anachronistic impression that the Greek doulos derived from not only the Aramaic dayala (which we had already seen is purported to derive from the Greek, not the other way around), but also mentions the Modern Hebrew dayal, which certainly couldn’t have influenced any Ancient Greek words. 

But I thought I’d try looking around a bit more. I couldn’t find anything of note about the Canaanite *dōʾēlu, other than websites quoting or referring back to this Wiktionary page. But the Babylonian daggālu had more promise. Since Late Babylonian is another word for Akkadian, I looked in Tawil’s dictionary of Akkadian. In the “Akkadian to Hebrew Concordance,” under dagālu, he points back to his entry for דגל. In that entry he writes:

Akkadian dagālu … to look (at) …

Akkadian dagālu in the G-Stem and S-stem has a wide variety of nuances and meanings, including “to own” and “to be a subject.” With the prepositions ana, pan, and ina pan, it means “to wait for.”

This fits what I wrote in an even earlier post on the Hebrew word דגל degel. I quoted Milgrom on Bamidbar 2:2

Hebrew degel possibly originally meant a military banner. This is supported by the Akkadian dagalu, "to look", and diglu, "sight"

But while dagālu could mean “to be a subject,” is there further evidence that it’s related to dayal and doula?

Sokoloff, in his Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, does make such a connection. In his entry for the Aramaic dayala דַּיָּילָא, he provides two definitions. A type of official (as in Yoma 18a) or a servant (as in Pesachim 86b). And for the etymology, he says it derives from the Akkadian dajalu - “inspector.” 

So Sokoloff says that dayala (the source of dayal) derives from dagalu. He makes no mention of the Greek doulos, but there’s nothing in what he wrote that would contradict doulos deriving either from the Akkadian or Aramaic.

Where then did Klein get his idea of a Greek origin for dayala? I assume this Ben Yehuda entry:

Ben Yehuda defines a dayal as someone who serves food (i.e., a waiter) and says it was common in Hebrew speech and also used in newspapers. In the footnote, after quoting Pesachim 86b (see above), it notes that there are those who say it is borrowed from Greek. 

I don’t know who are “those who say” but I imagine it’s possible that Akkadian scholarship at that point had not advanced to the level it later did, and so the dictionary editors weren’t aware of the possibility of an Akkadian origin. 

Sunday, June 09, 2024

intifada and pitzutz

In the past, I've talked about how I'm a fan of Mike Pesca's podcast, The Gist. Recently, Pesca had a segment, “Intifada Revolution? Or is that a linguistic delusion?” (starting at 26:30) where he railed against those claiming that because the Arabic word intifada (“insurrection, uprising”) originated in a more gentle meaning of “shaking off,” the protesters calling for an intifada today aren’t really inciting for violence. 

It’s a great segment, where Pesca skillfully explains how words change meaning, and how we need to be honest about how the words are used today. The Palestinian expressions of intifada have been very violent, with thousands killed, and it is disingenuous to claim that calls for further “global” intifada would be any less violent. 

I won’t repeat all of Pesca’s arguments here - it’s really worth listening to. But the essence of his position is against what is known as the etymologically fallacy - that a word’s meaning is determined by its etymology. On this site, I implicitly campaign against that approach constantly. By showing the development of words over time, even those with weighty religious usage, I try to show that words change, and we need to understand how they were used at the time they were said or written.

The segment on the Gist did get me thinking. Does the Arabic word intifada have any cognates in Hebrew? It took a little digging, but it certainly does. 

As noted, the word intifada did mean “shaking off.” As noted here, it comes 

from the verb intafada "to be shaken, shake oneself."

The verb intafada in turn is the reflexive form (similar to hitpael in Hebrew) of the verb nafada - “to shake, shake off.” Klein notes that nafada is cognate to the Hebrew verb נפץ - “to shatter, scatter”:

Prob. a secondary base derived from פוץ ᴵ. cp. Aram.-Syr. נְפַץ (= he shook out, emptied), Arab. nafaḍa (= he shook), Akka. napāṣu (= to shatter).

From the root נפץ, we get many words relating to shattering or exploding such as napatz נַפָּץ - “detonator” (or in modern Hebrew slang “firecracker”), mapatz מַפָּץ - “bang, explosion” (as in “the Big Bang” hamapatz hagadol הַמַּפָּץ הַגָּדוֹל), and the verb hitnapetz הִתְנַפֵּץ - “to shatter, disintegrate, crash.”

Klein noted that נפץ is probably a secondary form of the root פוץ. This root has a similar meaning: “to disperse, scatter, spread.” It’s most commonly seen as a verb in the form הפיץ - “to scatter, spread, disseminate, propagate.” As an adjective, it gives us the word nafotz נָפוֹץ - “widespread”, and as a noun tefutza תְּפוּצָה - “dispersion, diaspora.”

Another root that comes from פוץ is פצץ - “to break, to shatter.” In Biblical Hebrew it could refer to such actions as breaking rocks, like in Yirmiyahu 23:29

  וּכְפַטִּישׁ יְפֹצֵץ סָלַע - “as a hammer that shatters rock” 

In modern times, that verb was borrowed to mean “to explode, detonate,” giving such words as petzatza פְּצָצָה - “bomb” and pitzutz פִּיצוּץ - “explosion.” 

As we can see, many derivatives of these related roots refer to volatile acts of explosions, detonations and shattering. I will remain consistent with my approach, and will point out that these words have also changed meanings over time (such as the coining of petzatza by Ben Yehuda). Even if the original meanings were more violent, that doesn’t mean that the original Arabic nafada had that connotation. But likewise, the meanings of those Arabic words have also changed, and so intifada cannot be divorced from its more recent associations with terrorism.