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. 

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