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Sunday, October 24, 2021

cherry and keres

 I was surprised to learn that the English word "cherry" may have Semitic roots.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has the following entry for cherry:

from Anglo-French cherise, from Old North French cherise (Old French, Modern French cerise, 12c.), from Vulgar Latin *ceresia, from late Greek kerasian "cherry," from Greek kerasos "cherry tree," possibly from a language of Asia Minor. Mistaken in Middle English for a plural and stripped of its -s.

The Etymology Nerd blog has a similar post:

A long time ago, the Akkadians associated the phoneme karsu with the morpheme concerning trees bearing tiny fruits. The rest is history, as the word passed into Anatolian and then Greek (following geographical lines, I might add), as kerasos and specifically applying to the bird cherry tree. This logically created another noun, that of kerasion, or "cherry", as an -ion suffix was affixed. As many Greek words did, this passed into Latin, and as all Greek words with a that pass in to Latin change into a word with a c, as did did kerasion, which became the word cerasium, later ceresium​. In Vulgar Latin, this became ceresia, and in Old Northern French it became cherise (nothing to do with mon cheri). This then became a loanword as it crossed the English channel to become cherise, and here people began to use it daily until someone along the line "realized" that this was a plural, and that was incorrect, so that person decided to abridge it to something like cherri, which became cherry in due course.

Both note that the "s" was dropped when the word entered English from French due to a mistaken assumption that word was plural. (The same thing happened with the word pea.) That's a fun fact, but I'm more interested in the Akkadian etymology. Klein, in his CEDEL, provides a little more information. After tracing the word to the Greek like the sources above, he adds:

which probably derives from Akkadian karshu, 'stone fruit'

This piqued my curiosity. While many words in Akkadian have cognates in Hebrew (or Aramaic), Klein didn't offer one here. I tried looking up karsu, karshu or karashu in Akkadian dictionaries, but none explicitly gave a meaning of "stone fruit." 

However, there were other meanings that could provide a connection. One meaning of karasu in Akkadian is listed as "stone." For example, this Akkadian dictionary has an entry for karašu with these meanings:

1) a leek (cultivated, or wild in mountains) ; 2) (a kind of stone)

The meaning "leek" isn't so surprising. We've already discussed before the Hebrew word kreisha כרשה and the Aramaic word karti כרתי - both meaning "leek", and having karashu as a cognate seems logical. But what is the connection between leeks and stones?  

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (CAD) has a far more detailed entry. In their entry for karašu (page 212) they first define it as "leek", then

in descriptions of stones … the stone whose color is green like leeks

And later there is mention of stones. While it is possible that this became the "stone" of stone fruits, it seems less likely to me, and is also rejected by "Rosół and Blažek" according to the Wiktionary entry for the Greek kerasos.

To me, a more likely candidate would be a different meaning of the Akkadian word. According to the CAD, jhgsdh Futon Mattress, Japanese Tatami Floor Mat Sleeping Pad Fo (page 223) can mean

1. stomach, belly, womb, body
2. mind, heart, plan, desire
3. inner or lower side
While there is no mention of stone fruits, or fruits at all, in their entry, it seems reasonable to me that the word could have been borrowed for stone fruits specifically (considering that the stone is inside the fruit, as if in the belly), or perhaps fruit in general (metaphorically the produce of the womb). 

If this is the case, there is a cognate with a Hebrew word: keres, also meaning "belly." It appears in Biblical Hebrew only once, with the spelling כרש, in Yirmiyahu 51:34:

 מִלָּא כְרֵשׂוֹ מֵעֲדָנָי

He filled his belly with my dainties

However, the word keres became more common in Rabbinic Hebrew, where the spelling changed to כרס. Klein confirms the cognate with Akkadian:

belly (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Jer. 51:34). In PBH spelled כָּרֵס (q.v.). [Related to Aram.-Syr. כַּרְסָא (= belly), Arab. karish, kirsh, Ethiop. karsh (= stomach, belly), Akka. karshu, karashu (= belly).] 

It does surprise me that he doesn't connect the entry for keres with his entry for "cherry", but I don't think that necessarily means he didn't connect them. In any case, the next time I fill my keres with cherries, I'll be sure to think of the etymological connection.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

marpek and rafiki

The Hebrew word for "elbow" - מרפק marpek is not of biblical origin. It first appears in Rabbinic Hebrew, for example in Mishna Shabbat 10:3. However, the word does derive from a root, רפק, that has one appearance in the Tanakh. Here is Klein's entry for marpek:

From רפק (= to support). cp. Aram. מַרְפְּקָא, Arab. marfiq (= elbow).

And here is what he writes about רפק:

רפק to support, lean.
    — Pi. - רִפֵּק MH 1 he supported, upheld; NH 2 he elbowed.
    — Pu. - רֻפַּק was supported, was upheld.
    — Hith. - הִתְרַפֵּק he leant against, clung to (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Cant. 8:5). [Arab. rafaqa (= he helped, supported), Ethiop. rafaqa (= he reclined at the table, leaned upon). Base of מַרְפֵּק (= elbow).] 

Let's take a look first at the last form of the verb, התרפק hitrapek, since it is the one that appears in the Bible:

מִי זֹאת עֹלָה מִן־הַמִּדְבָּר מִתְרַפֶּקֶת עַל־דּוֹדָהּ...

"Who is she that comes up from the desert, leaning [mitrapeket] upon her beloved?..." (Shir HaShirim 8:5)

This modern translation (New JPS) relies upon the same scholarship that Klein had, and therefore renders mitrapeket as "leaning." The medieval commentaries, such as Rashi and Ibn Ezra quote the Arabic cognate, but give that as proof that it means "to attach." In light of this Artscroll renders the verse "clinging to her Beloved" and the new Koren Tanakh has "entwined with her beloved." I'm not sure where this interpretation of the Arabic came from - perhaps they knew that rafik in Arabic meant friend, which is chaver חבר in Hebrew, and that recalled the root חבר meaning "to attach."

Jastrow writes that in Talmudic Hebrew the hitpael form of the verb meant "to endear one's self." He quotes Bereshit Rabba 45:4, where we find mention of women who were מִתְרַפְּקוֹת עַל בַּעֲלֵיהֶן בְּנוֹיָן - "endearing themselves [mitrapkot] to their husbands through their beauty." 

In more recent times, the verb has taken on another set of meanings: "to hug, to cling to; to remember fondly." The first - "to hug" - is perhaps influenced by the approach of the  medieval commentators. The latter - "to remember fondly" - I assume was a more creative interpretation of the verse in Shir HaShirim.

Klein also mentions a piel form - ריפק ripek. I've never heard it used today to mean "to support" or "to uphold," but the use "to elbow" does exist, but it's more commonly found today as ממרפק mimarpek. As Avshalom Kor points out here, that's one of the few uses of the root that doesn't have a positive connotation - instead of support, clinging and fond remembrance, to elbow is to rudely push your way into a place.

Returning to the Arabic cognate, we find that rafik provided the name Rafiq, meaning "friend" or "companion." From Arabic, the same word was borrowed into Swahili, where it became rafiki. That name may be familiar from the Disney movie, The Lion King, where it was the name of the mandrill who through magical and spiritual efforts, helped the protagonists. He was their "friend", and as it happened, was always leaning on a walking stick, while bending his elbow.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

cedar, citron and ketoret

If you haven't noticed, my recent posts have frequently referred to Klein's Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (CEDEL). I purchased the two volume set a few years ago, but recently decided that if I want to find the cases where he provides Semitic origins to English words, I'd have to just start reading it from the beginning. And that's what I've been doing for the past few weeks. It will probably take me several months to complete the project.

I can't say that every entry with a connection to Hebrew is entirely convincing, but I can say that Klein does seem to be doing his best with the tools he had, and often provides sources, which makes follow up research much easier.

One interesting aspect of this project has been noticing when the Online Etymology Dictionary (Etymonline), a very popular internet etymology resource (which I quote often), relies on the CEDEL for an etymology, but won't go the final mile and mention the Hebrew cognate that Klein suggests. 

An example of this can be found in the entry for "cedar" and related words. Etymonline has the following entry for cedar:

"type of coniferous tree noted for its slow growth and hard timber," late Old English ceder, blended in Middle English with Old French cedre, both from Latin cedrus, from Greek kedros "cedar, juniper," a word of uncertain origin.

After mentioning the Middle English, Old English, French, Latin and Greek origins (as also done by Etymonline), Klein continues:

which probably denoted originally 'a tree whose wood was used for burning sacrifices,' and derives from Hebrew qatar, 'it exhaled odor, smoked'; see Heinrich Lewy, Die semitischen Fremdwörter im Griechischen, Berlin, 1895, p. 35. 

We discussed qatar in a post about the etymology of "nectar", and its relationship to ketoret. But I wasn't familiar at the time with the possible connection to "cedar," so I didn't mention it then.

At the end of that entry, Klein recommends also looking at his entry for "citron" (the English name for the etrog tree and fruit.) He connects "citron" to "cedar", and then mentions that "citrus" comes from "citron" as well. Here Etymonline does make direct mention of Klein. Here's their entry for citrus:

any tree of the genus Citrus, or its fruit, 1825, from the Modern Latin genus name, from Latin citrus "citron tree," the name of an African tree with aromatic wood and lemon-like fruit, the first citrus fruit to become available in the West. The name, like the tree, is probably of Asiatic origin [OED] or from a lost non-IE Mediterranean language [de Vaan]. But Klein and others trace it to Greek kedros "cedar," perhaps via Etruscan (a suggested by the change of -dr- to -tr-).

And their entry for citron is connected:

"large, thick-rinded, lemon-like citrus fruit," late 14c., also citrine (early 15c.), from Old French citron "citron, lemon" (14c.), possibly from Old Provençal citron, from Latin citrus "citron-tree," and influenced by lemon; or else from augmentative of Latin citreum (mālum) "citron (apple);" see citrus.

To be clear, I don't object to Etymonline disagreeing with Klein's conclusions. I just think it would be easier for future investigations if they were quoted more inclusively.

One remaining question is what is the connection between the cedar and citron trees? In Italian the same word - cedro -  is used for both, so certainly some association is possible. This book quotes Galen (the Greek physician living in the Roman empire) who provided a few possible theories:

because the green unripe citron resembles the unripe cedar-cone; or because cedar and citron trees have spines around the leaves [...] or more fancifully because the the fruit and leaves had the smell of cedar...

(Regarding the first theory, there are those who claim that when the Bible refers to pri etz hadar פרי עץ הדר, it did not mean the etrog / citron, but rather the cedar cone. Others reject this, because the cedar tree has a common name in the Bible, erez ארז and no connection is made between erez and hadar in any biblical text.)

While all of Galen's theories may be a possible connections between cedar and citron, if we rely upon Klein's etymology for cedar, which goes back to the odor from the tree, then perhaps the citron tree was similarly named for its strong aroma. While the cedar may have got its name from the odor when the wood was burned, certainly anyone who has smelled a citron can attest to its powerful scent as well.  

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

amazon, amitz and imutz

For the past few decades, Amazon has been one of the most recognized brand names worldwide. The founder chose the name because of the exotic nature and great size of the Amazon river. The river got its name from the women fighters of the native tribe who attacked the Spanish explorers, who reminded them of the Greek myth of the Amazons - a group of female warriors.

And where did the Greeks get the name Amazon? The Online Etymology Dictionary has this entry:

late 14c., via Old French (13c.) or Latin, from Greek Amazon (mostly in plural Amazones) "one of a race of female warriors in Scythia," probably from an unknown non-Indo-European word, or possibly from an Iranian compound *ha-maz-an- "(one) fighting together" [Watkins], but in folk etymology long derived from a- "without" + mazos, variant of mastos "breast;" hence the story that the Amazons cut or burned off one breast so they could draw bowstrings more efficiently. 

What was the non-Indo-European word? There are many theories, but I'd like to focus on Klein's suggestion in his CEDEL:

from Greek Amazon, which probably derives from Hebrew ammitz, 'strong'

Amitz אמיץ, derives from the root אמץ, meaning "to be strong." A synonym of the more popular chazak חזק (the verb חזק appears 290 times in the Bible, while אמץ only appears 41 times), it is the source of several words relating to strength:

  • ometz אומץ - "bravery"
  • ma'amatz מאמץ - "effort"
  • hitametz התאמץ - "went to great lengths, endeavored"
But one meaning of the root does not seem to fit with the others: imetz אימץ - "adopted" and imutz אימוץ - "adoption." How did those uses come from a root meaning "be strong"?

Klein lists the meaning "was adopted (said of a child)" but does not explain the development. After going through meanings related to strength, Ben Yehuda adds:

"Some writers would say that someone imetz (adopted) to him a son or daughter." However, he does not indicate when this usage began, or give any examples of its usage.

There is one biblical verse, however, that some point to as an example of אמץ meaning "to adopt." This is Tehillim 80:16 

וְכַנָּה אֲשֶׁר־נָטְעָה יְמִינֶךָ וְעַל־בֵּן אִמַּצְתָּה לָּךְ׃

This is a difficult verse to understand, and there are many translations. The JPS, for example translates this verse (and the preceding one, which I've added for context as):

 "O God of hosts, turn again,
look down from heaven and see;
take note of that vine, the stock planted by Your right hand,
the stem [ben] you have taken [imatzta] as Your own." 

A footnote to their translation, on the word "stem," notes: "literarly 'son.'" So according to this translation, the literal meaning of the phrase would be "the son you have taken as Your own," which could imply something like adoption.

Robert Alter, in his translation, goes for that literal meaning, translating it as "the son You took to Yourself", and adds this note:

If the received text shows an authentic reading here, there is a slightly disconcerting shift from the vehicle of the metaphor (the vine) to its tenor (the people of Israel as God’s son). Some interpreters have understood ben as a poetic term for “branch” or as a scribal error for some other word that means “branch,” but the verb attached to it - ʾimatsta, which suggests adoption of a child—is appropriate for a son, not a plant.

It seems to me that Alter is perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Both verses 15 and 16 are clearly using imagery of plants. If there were other verses where imetz meant "to adopt", then they could be used to justify that translation here. But I haven't found any, and I suspect Alter is influenced by modern usage.

In fact, Ben Yehuda does quote this verse, in his entry for אמץ, under the meaning "to plant." He adds another verse, Yeshaya 44:14 -

לִכְרׇת־לוֹ אֲרָזִים וַיִּקַּח תִּרְזָה וְאַלּוֹן וַיְאַמֶּץ־לוֹ בַּעֲצֵי־יָעַר נָטַע אֹרֶן וְגֶשֶׁם יְגַדֵּל׃

By including it under the subentry, Ben Yehuda is implying that it means "to plant" here as well. What is the connection between "planting" and "strength"? That can be found in a number of translations to these two verses. For example the (old) Koren Jerusalem Bible translates the verse from Yeshaya as:

He hews him down cedars, and takes the pine and the oak, which he strengthens for himself [vay'ametz] among the trees of the forest: he plants a forest tree and the rain nourishes it. 

Part of the planting process, or a result of is, the strengthening of the tree. The new Koren Tanakh, in their translation of the Tehillim verse, uses similar language: "this shoot You nurtured as Your own." Kaddari, quoting these verses (and Tehillim 80:18) says it means גידלת, which can mean "to raise" or "to grow" (which also could imply adoption.)

Others, however, stick to a meaning related to "taking." The JPS translates the Yeshaya phrase as "He sets aside trees of the forest" and Alter suggests "he picks from the trees of the forest." How is choosing or taking related to strength? The BDB offers the meaning "assure, secure for oneself." Secure implies both strength and possession. 

Ultimately, the meaning of the verb אמץ is unclear in these verses (and the Daat Mikra, for example on Yeshaya 44:14, offers both "to strengthen" and "to set aside.") But one thing is clear - these verses weren't followed up with uses of אמץ to mean the adoption of a child in the remainder of Biblical literature, or any of Talmudic literature. In fact, a search of the Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language shows the first clear example of that usage in an 1873 essay (page 143 and page 144) by the writer Peretz Smolenskin. And even following that, it wasn't a very popular usage. For example, see the results of this Google Books Ngram Viewer search. I looked for the word אימוץ, which as a gerund wouldn't be used for much else other than adoption. It only really picks up in the 1950s, growing to a much higher usage in the last twenty years.

So what happened here? I think this is an example of a phenomenon we've discussed many times before on Balashon. I don't know the technical name of the linguistic phenomenon (but I have a feeling a reader will enlighten me in the comments), but what happens frequently in Hebrew when there are two synonyms is that one will become the popular one for common usage and the other will take on a different meaning. This new meaning will generally fill in a semantic gap, becoming the word for a concept previously without a good word as a fit. (This is part of the process called semantic change, but I don't think it's exactly semantic narrowing, since the new meaning isn't necessarily less general than the earlier meaning - just different.) We saw it with etz and ilan, with atar and makom, with tzedek and tzedaka, and now with chizek and imetz. Hebrew today doesn't really need two words for "strengthen." So when a writer like Smolenskin borrows from a verse in Tehillim and turns imetz into adopt (a child), then the speakers will, well, adopt the usage with open arms. (Yes, the meaning of imetz has since expanded to mean adopting of any practice or idea.)

Perhaps the lesson here is just as Amazon the company takes over marketplaces, and the waters of the Amazon river flow through the land of South America, so too will words like imutz fill in the linguistic gaps if only given a chance.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

meged, almond and armageddon

We've previously discussed the Hebrew word שקד shaked, meaning "almond." But what about the etymology of the word "almond" itself?

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following origin:

kernel of the fruit of the almond tree, c. 1300, from Old French almande, amande, earlier alemondle "almond," from Vulgar Latin *amendla, *amandula, from Latin amygdala (plural), from Greek amygdalos "an almond tree," a word of unknown origin, perhaps from Semitic. Late Old English had amygdales "almonds." 

This makes it cognate with the part of the brain responsible for emotions known as the amygdala. Here's the Online Etymology entry for amygdala:

part of the brain, from Latin amygdalum "almond" (which the brain parts resemble), from Greek amygdale "almond" (see almond). English also had amygdales "the tonsils" (early 15c.), from a secondary sense of the Latin word in Medieval Latin, a translation of Arabic al-lauzatani "the two tonsils," literally "the two almonds," so called by Arabic physicians for fancied resemblance.

The connection between almonds and tonsils exists in Hebrew as well - shaked can refer to both.

However, I'd like to return to the mention above that the Greek amygdalos may be "perhaps from Semitic." In Klein's CEDEL, he expands on this idea. In his entry for "almond" he writes:

…according to H. Lewy, Die semitischen Fremdwörter im Griechischen, pp. 25-26, [amygdalos] is borrowed from Hebrew meghedh El, 'divine fruit'.

The Hebrew word referred to here, meged מגד, is not a very common one in the Bible, only appearing eight times. However, those familiar with the Torah reading for Simchat Torah will certainly recognize it, as it repeats five times during Moshe's blessing of the tribes of Yosef (Devarim 33:13-16) . The word is variously translated as "sweetness," "best", or "bounty." Some say it means "blessing", particularly when comparing the parallel blessing Yaakov gave Yosef in Bereshit 49:25

Klein's etymology for meged is not much more precise:

מֶֽגֶד m.n. choice of things, excellence. [Related to Aram. מִגְדָּא (= fruit, something precious), Syr. מַגְדָּא (= fruit), Arab. majd (= glory, honor).] 

In any case, based on all the biblical appearances of the word, it always refers to good crops or fruits, and so the possibility that it eventually was borrowed by the Greeks for their word for the fruit of the prized almond tree should not be dismissed.

Klein mentioned the Arabic cognate, majd. That Arabic word is found in a number of names of people and places, One such place, familiar to Israelis, is the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in the Galilee. While the English Wikipedia page says that the name translates to "watch-house of the vineyard" (perhaps cognate with the Hebrew migdal מגדל - "tower"), the Hebrew entry translates the name as "glory of the vineyards", which makes it cognate with meged.

Yet there is another town in northern Israel, even more well known, which may derive from meged as well. This is the Biblical city of Megiddo מגידו. Megiddo appears 12 times in the Bible, once (Zecharia 12:11) as Megidon. While its etymology is debated, the Encyclopedia Mikrait suggests that it may come from meged due to the produce grown there.

The mountain of Megiddo was known in Hebrew as har Megido הר מגידו (or perhaps har Megidon), and this led to another familiar word in English - Armageddon:

"cataclysmic final conflict," 1811, figurative use of the place-name in Revelation xvi.16, site of the great and final conflict, from Hebrew Har Megiddon "Mount of Megiddo"

Today many are concerned about the WQF Glass Candy Sweet Jar with Lid, Small Crystal Covered Sugar. Let's hope that instead of leading to an armageddon, they continue to be the divine fruit of blessing that we've enjoyed for millennia. 

Sunday, September 19, 2021


In an earlier post, we discussed the Semitic etymologies of two towns in upstate New York: Utica and Ithaca. Both are named for cities in the Mediterranean, and are claimed to ultimately have Phoenician origins. Well, if you drive from Utica to Ithaca, you will pass through another city with a similar story: Syracuse.

Having grown up in nearby Rochester, all of these cities were familiar to me. On a recent visit to Rochester, my brother and sister-in-law prepared Syracuse salt potatoes - a delicious dish that I hadn't tried before. Only later did I learn that Syracuse is nicknamed "The Salt City", due to the salty springs in the area, that led to it becoming a center of salt production. So I guess in a city like that, you can afford to cook potatoes in 1.5 cups of salt.

Those same sources of salt also led to the name of the city. In the 19th century, officials Tubicu Baby Hexagon Luxury Rhinestone Crown, Mini Tiara Wedding "Syracuse" after an ancient town of the same name in the Mediterranean island of Sicily. That older Syracuse also was known for producing salt, and had marshes like the one in upstate New York. It was a good fit.

According to some, those marshes provided the original name of the city. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives this origin:

city in Sicily, founded as a Corinthian colony, and with a name traceable to 8c. B.C.E., from a pre-Hellenic word, perhaps Phoenician serah "to feel ill," in reference to its location near a swamp. The city in New York, U.S., was named 1825 for the classical city.

The word serah mentioned here is a cognate with the Hebrew סרח, meaning "to stink". Klein has this etymology:

Aram. סְרַח (= it decayed, putrefied), Syr. סְרַח (= he sinned, was corrupt), Aram. סוּרְחָנָא (= corruptness).

It only appears in the Bible in one verse, Yirmiyahu 49:7, describing the nation of Edom. The prophet asks:

נִסְרְחָ֖ה חׇכְמָתָֽם

Has their wisdom gone stale?

But the verb became much more common in Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow offers the following meanings: "to evaporate, be decomposed; to decay; to smell badly." Today, the most common form of the verb is the hifil - הסריח "it stank."

(There is another root with the same letters - סרח, meaning "to stretch, spread out, extend", but it is unrelated to the meaning "to stink.")

This is not the only suggested etymology of Syracuse. The French diplomat Victor Bérard proposed that it originally derived from the Phoenician Sour-ha-Koussim, translated as "stone of the seagulls." This would be cognate with the Hebrew צור הכוסים. Tzur certainly means "rock", but kos, a bird mentioned in Vayikra 11:17 and Devarim 14:16 is usually translated as "owl" - a bird found in the desert, not at sea. However, Gesenius does write that kos should be identified as the "pelican" (whose pouch perhaps recalls the other meaning of kos - "cup, vessel.") Those are much more likely to be found around Sicily than desert owls.

Monday, August 30, 2021

REVIEW: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, History & Liturgy

Mitchell First is a scholar of Jewish history who, like me, has a fascination with the origin of Hebrew words and phrases.

He has published two books (Roots & Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History, and Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy) which have collected his columns on the subject, as well as other columns related to the history of the Jewish calendar, the prayers, and other topics of Jewish history.

I've reviewed the books on the Tradition website, and you can read my review here:


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