May 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Periodically I come across words that are fascinating but do not deserve an entire column:

הורים (parents): The root הרה in Tanach meant: become pregnant, obviously referring only to a female. The word הרה referring to the father, and the root הורים referring to both parents, arose only in post-biblical times.

One can disagree with this approach based on Rashi at Gen. 49:26. Here we have the word הורי, and Rashi and many others interpret this word as “parents.” But Rashbam, Shadal and modern scholars believe that this word means “mountains,” parallel to גבעת later in the verse. These terms are parallel more than 30 other times in Tanach! One very close to our verse is at Hab. 3:6. See the post at of 7/18/08.

(I note that M. Jastrow, p. 340, connects the “father” meaning with the root ירה and its meaning “instruct.” But the more modern view is the one I stated above.)

מעגל (path): The root of this word is עגל, which means “round.” But at Prov. 4:11 we have “ma’aglei yosher,” implying a מעגל that is straight. How can a path be both round/circular and straight? The explanation is that מעגל refers to a straight path, made by or for the wheels of a wagon! See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs and the Soncino comm. to Prov. 2:9. (But M. Clark, in his etymology book, disagrees and takes the unlikely position that מעגל refers to a “circular path.”)

שק: (sack, sackloth): This word means both: 1) a sack to hold items like grain and 2) a garment worn in mourning and humiliation. The widespread view is that the origin of the English word is the Greek “sakkos” and that this Greek word was borrowed from the Semitic word.

The next step is to figure out which of the two Semitic meanings came first: the sack of grain meaning or the garment meaning? Could one have developed from the other? Most likely, that is not what happened. Rather, the word origin is the material used for both. The word refers to something made from goat’s hair or a similar animal. See, e.g., the JPS Leviticus Comm. on Lev. 11:32.

One can see this meaning by comparing Lev. 11:32 with Num. 31:20. Both verses list common categories of objects. The first verse has the word שק, while the second has “ma’aseh izim” (=everything made of goat’s hair). This suggests a rough equivalency with the שק of the other verse. On all of this, see the post at of 12/24/06. See also Daat Mikra to Est. 4:1. (Note that in one place in Tanach, animals wear a שק: Yonah 3:8.)

England and Onkelos: This possible word relationship is shocking. I learned it from a post at of 5/27/09. Where does the name “England” come from? It was originally “Englaland,” with the meaning “land of the Angles.” The Angles were one of the Germanic tribes that settled in Great Britain during the early Middle Ages. They were from a region called Angeln in Germany. The region and people probably got its name because of the angular shape of the area they lived, the Angeln peninsula.

When the Angles and the Saxons and others settled in Britain over the centuries, the new land ended up taking on the name of the Angles.

“Angle” is related to “ankle” and means “to bend.” (This is all in Indo-European.)

David Curwin, the author, writes that as he was composing this post about England and saying these words over and over, he began to intuit that perhaps the name Onkelos alluded to some physical imperfection due to a bent body part. Of course, no one knows what Onkelos looked like, but he did find such a suggestion in two sources: 1) Jewish Encyclopaedia (1901-06), entry for Onkelos, and 2) a certain work of S.D. Luzzatto.

Adonis: This is a name of a Greek god (of beauty and desire) and is based on that word familiar to all of us, אדון, the name of a Canaanite god. “Adon” was the Canaanite name for the Sumerian-Babylonian god Tamuz. Tamuz was a god of fertility, and there was a ritual of crying and mourning every summer to commemorate its departure due to the heat. (This ritual is alluded to at Ezek. 8:14. It is of course ironic that we cry in Tamuz as well!) The Canaanites passed this mourning ritual to the Greeks. See Encyclopaedia Judaica 15:788.

For grammatical reasons (related to the Greek nominative case), the Greek language has to add “es” and “is” and certain other endings to foreign nouns. The name משה for example became “Moses” in the Greek translation of the Torah. Another example is the individual on whose name the Christian religion is based. His name in Greek: Iesous, likely from ישוע. Another example: Yirmiyahu becomes Ieremias.

(This is also the reason for the “es” at the end of the name “Xerxes,” the botched Greek name for Achashverosh. Please always remember that the Greek language did not have a letter for the “sh” sound.)

חדקל and Tigris: These are both references to the same river in Babylonia. How are these seemingly entirely different names related? The Greek form “Tigris” developed from Old Persian “Tigra.” (See the previous discussion. Note also that “Euphrates” is the Greek name of the river פרת.) The Old Persian “Tigra” derived from Sumerian Idigna. (“N” and “R” sounds often switch. See, e.g., the names in Tanach: Nevuchadnezzar and Nevuchadrezzar, and see also the reference to עכן as עכר at 1 Chr. 2:7.)

That early form, Sumerian Idigna, was borrowed into Akkadian as “Idiqlat,” and from there into the other Semitic languages: Hebrew: “Chidekel,” Syriac: “Deqlaṯ,” and Arabic: “Dijlah.”


In a column in 2016, I discussed many other interesting words. I certainly need the review, even if you don’t:

בתר (after): This is a contraction of ba-atar =in the place of.

עכשו (now): This looks like a real challenge, as עכש is not a root. It has been suggested that עכשו is a contraction of: atah cemo-shehu (=now the way it is). See Jastrow, p. 1080. (E. Klein, in his etymological work, suggests something similar: ad ce-shehu.) I learned recently (in a post by Rabbi R. C. Klein) that עכשו pre-dates the Mishnah and is found in a Dead Sea Scroll: 4Q225.

אגב (upon, on the basis): This is a contraction of al gav=on the back of. See Jastrow, p. 10. (Probably, אל is used here with the meaning על.)

אלא (rather, but): This is a contraction of im lo (=if not). See Jastrow, p. 66.

אלתר (at once): This is a contraction of al atar: “on the place,” which then developed a connotation of immediacy (like English: “on the spot”). See Jastrow, p. 74.

אדרבה (on the contrary): The literal meaning here is “on the stronger (=rabbah) side.”

… ד אליבא (according to the opinion of): אליבא is based on the root lev (=heart).

אחראי (responsible, guarantor): This comes from אחר. A guarantor is a person who stands behind something or someone.

The word “utopia” means “an imaginary place.” What is its etymology? In Greek, “topos” means “place,” and the prefix “ou” means “not.” So the combination of ou plus topos means: it is not a place!

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Regarding the last thought, he wonders what a person familiar with Greek thinks when he sees “OU Kosher”!

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