Daven.

I recently had occasion to look up the verb daven ‘to recite the Jewish liturgy; to pray’ and was surprised to discover the murkiness of its origin. That Wiktionary article says it’s from Yiddish דאַוונען‎ (davnen), itself from “Middle Dutch *daven, further etymology uncertain. May be related to Old Saxon dovon, Old High German tobēn, but the vowel a is irregular in this case.” The Wikipedia article is more expansive (but doesn’t even mention the proposed German origin!):

Daven is the originally exclusively Eastern Yiddish verb meaning “pray”; it is widely used by Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews. In Yinglish, this has become the Anglicised davening.

The origin of the word is obscure, but is thought by some to have come from Arabic (from diwan, a collection of poems or prayers), French (from devoner, ‘to devote’ or ‘dedicate’ or possibly from the French ‘devant‘- ‘in front of’ with the idea that the person praying is mindful of before whom they stand), Latin (from divin, ‘divine’) or even English (from dawn). Others believe that it derives from a Slavic word meaning “to give” (Russian: давать, romanized: davat’). Some claim that it originates from an Aramaic word, de’avuhon or d’avinun, meaning ‘of their/our forefathers’, as the three prayers are said to have been invented by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Another Aramaic derivation, proposed by Avigdor Chaikin, cites the Talmudic phrase, “ka davai lamizrach“, ‘gazing wistfully to the east’ (Shab. 35a). Kevin A. Brook, cites Zeiden’s suggestion that the word daven comes from the Turkish root tabun– meaning ‘to pray’, and that in Kipchak Turkish, the initial t morphs into d.

Most of those ideas are absurd on their face, but their very proliferation suggests the need people have to know where words come from. I regret to report that the OED, in a 2005 entry, limits itself to “< Yiddish daven to pray.” Cowards!

Comments

  1. I like the theory that davenen is a denominal verb < Lith. dovana, Latv. dāvana ‘gift’, itself a calque of Hebrew מִנְחָה minḥah ‘gift, offering’, originally applied to offerings in the Temple, but the word used in Yiddish for afternoon prayers. This calque would have been created by Jews who needed to explain to their gentile neighbors that Aš dovanoju Dievui / Es dodu dāvanu Dieva ‘I am making a present to God’ and so could not do business until the prayers were complete. See Judah A. Joffe’s 1959 paper.

  2. Interesting!

  3. It’s interesting that all the citations the OED has are post Second World War. While it would certainly be harder to find English-language citations before 1945, there must have been plenty of them in American English sources from the first half of the twentieth century.

    I should perhaps say that the vigorous movement associated with traditional davening is not something that is much part of my own religious experience and family tradition, and frankly, I find it sometimes esthetically unappealing. Honestly, the first thing that pops into my head when I think of that kind of davening is the Jumping Jews of Jerusalem from Blackadder (at 19:00 in this video; keep watching past the Jumping Jews’ exit, for the final punchline from Angus Deayton, Rowan Atkinson’s regular straight man).

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Also, toben means “to rage”, “to go berserk”.

    Edit: sure enough, “Why do the heathen rage” comes out as Warum toben die Völker in the ecumenical translation of 1962–1980.

  5. Ignorant gentile that I am, I was under the impression that ‘davening’ specifically meant the ‘vigorous movement’ that Brett refers to, and that the praying part of the activity was called praying.

    Reminds of a time long ago when a British magazine — I forgot which — published a correction to say that the word ‘maven’ quoted in an earlier story did not mean a tennis expert, as the writer had said, but an expert or connoisseur of any subject, and that the American quoted happened to be referring to tennis.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    English has no word for “tennis expert.”

  7. Maven is one of those words that doesn’t feel like a Yiddishism to me, although I know intellectually that it is one. I guess this is probably correlated with it not being used much in my own Jewish community growing up.

  8. I love that JC is giving a detailed theory of medieval Jewish religious practice a day after mentioning how hard it is for him at times to convince people he’s not a Cohen. I’m starting to think they may be right.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    Most of these explanations seem possible, or at least not as strange as some derivations that are real.

    It’s just that they can’t *all* be true.
    (And at that point there’s no particular reason why any one of them should be.)

  10. Stu Clayton says:

    There is never a point, for any thing, at which there is a particular reason why one of several possible explanations of that thing should be true. That follows from the meanings of “several”, “possible” and “particular”.

    Of course they could all be true, under a quantum etymological theory with superpositioning. Or none of them could be true.

  11. I am not a Christian either, and yet miaphysitism.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    The onlooker sees more of the game …

  13. The toad beneath the harrow knows / Where every separate tooth-point goes.

  14. Grandma would never think of calling the davenport a sofa. More so when growing up in a small Iowa town close to the city of the same name.

  15. Otoh Lithuanian wasn’t a town trade language as far in the past as Jewish trade existed in Lithuania….

  16. Stu Clayton says:

    The onlooker sees more of the game …

    Thus those who don’t play are convinced they would be better players.

  17. >>Ignorant gentile that I am, I was under the impression that ‘davening’ specifically meant the ‘vigorous movement’ that Brett refers to, and that the praying part of the activity was called praying.

    The word for the “vigorous movement” is shuckling…
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuckling

  18. Amusingly written but very prolix — the whole thing could have been boiled down to “I suggest as a possible source a verb attested in early NHG as dauhen and deuhen < OHG dûhen that basically means ‘move’ but can apparently (as a reflexive) also mean ‘duck, bend, bow (down).’

  19. PlasticPaddy says:

    Does the OHG dûhen mean something closer to ‘push’? Compare Dutch duwen

  20. My comment seems to have gone into limbo, tx.

  21. I’m afraid it’s not in moderation or in the spam folder; if you still have the text, you can send it to me and I’ll post it for you. Sorry about that!

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, tauchen “dive”, dialectally also “shove gently”? With irregular/hypercorrect t like tausend “1000”?

  23. Tausend is indeed very weird. In OHG it’s dūsend, just as expected, but tūsent in MHG. However, in Central Franconian varieties (in the wider sense that includes Letzëburgesch) it’s variably dausend, dousend, duusend, as if straight from OHG.

    Central Franconian tones, very like Swedish and Norwegian but independently derived. In particular, there are contrasts on monosyllables: /zɛɪ¹/ ‘sieve’ vs. /zɛɪ²/ ‘she’, Sieb vs. sie. (The exact realization of the tones is variable, as you’d expect.)

    Update: dausend in Pennsylvania German (= Palatine). This seems to be general: Dor ‘door’ even in European varieties uninfluenced by English, also ebbes ‘etwas’ (but obviously cognate with Yiddish eppes).

  24. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    I suppose the primary sense of tauchen was to push under (compare English duck or Am. dunk). Is taufen the same word via dialect borrowing (as in lachen/laugh)?

  25. Lars (the original one) says:

    Danish has the umlaut pair dukke/dykke = ‘duck/dive’. FWIW. (Probably base/causative, but I don’t have time to check. Both can be both transitive and intransitive in the current language, but dukke is ‘basically’ intransitive according to my Sprachgefühl).

  26. David Marjanović says:

    the primary sense of tauchen was to push under

    That sense still exists, though it’s always clarified as untertauchen or not clarified as eintauchen (eintauchen can also be intransitive). Then there’s antauchen for setting a vehicle or a swing into motion, and zutauchen for setting a door into motion toward the closed position, without following up and doing anything with the handle to make sure it’s fully closed.

    This seems to be general:

    Uh, yeah, but there you’ve just hit upon the Inderior German Gonsonand Weagening, where Panther and Panda become indistinguishable. Another example from the same area: Apfelwein with unshifted *pp coming out as Ebbelwoi (162 kiloghits).

  27. Stu Clayton says:

    Then there’s antauchen for setting a vehicle or a swing into motion, and zutauchen for setting a door into motion toward the closed position, without following up and doing anything with the handle to make sure it’s fully closed.

    What dialect is that ? In Cologne I think you would andäuen a swing, wat zudäuen a door

  28. PlasticPaddy says:

    Taufen goes back to a form with p instead of an f (compare English dip). So it has no obvious relation to OHG dûhen/ modern tauchen, despite the resemblance, especially semantic, between the two modern German words.

  29. Neither antauchen nor zutauchen are part of my idiolect, and I see them here for the first time. Duden has the first as “Austrian colloquial” and the second not at all.

  30. David M: But how inderior is Dor? Or does that mean the inderior of the German-speaking lands, rather than the inderior of the word?

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Inderior of the German-speaging lands, from Ubber Sagson through Ubber Frangonian to Swabian.

    andäuen […] zudäuen

    Fascinating. Both unknown to me, but likely related to several of the words brought up in this thread.

    I’m also not sure if tauchen has two separate origins, one with *k, the other with *h. That could explain the geographic pecularities and maybe even the t: “dew” and “thaw” have after all merged as tauen.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    de.wiktionary does not offer an etymology. It links to the DWDS, which hardly says more than en.wiktionary:

    From Middle High German tūchen, touchen, from Old High German -tūhhan, from Proto-Germanic *dūkaną. Cognate to Dutch duiken. The word had become obsolete in Upper German, but was later reintroduced on the basis of Central German dūchen, tūchen and Middle Low German dūken, which had remained common. In the course of this process, the originally strong verb became weak. A derivative with Low German consonantism is ducken (cognate to and synonymous with English duck).

    (The DWDS adds that the noun duck is also related; good to have that confirmed.)

    So, everything is regular here, and the duck(-) words represent an iterative verb with *kk.

    likely related to several of the words brought up in this thread.

    Specifically, it’s identical to the abovementioned Early NHG deuhen.

    And if that, minus umlaut (i.e. the abovementioned dauhen), is the source for the “shove” meaning now found specifically in Upper German, that would explain why tauchen has a short /x/ for me, not a long one. While all sorts of analogical remodelings have happened, most often the short /x/ is cognate with Standard German silent h and is basically unchanged since Proto-Germanic, while the long one is preserved in the standard and comes from PGmc *k. So, we took the /t/ of one word and the /x/ of another.

    Taufen, BTW, has a long /f/, as expected from *p. It’s spelled with a single f because Upper Franconian and everything north of there shortened all long consonants when following long vowels or diphthongs in late OHG times.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    DWDS on taufen: it’s a causative, “make deep”, OE dēopian “dip in”. The Christian sense is thought to be copied from Wulfila’s calque (daupjan) of βαπτίζειν, which originally meant “dip in repeatedly”.

    Why there’s no umlaut in High German (the cognates throughout Northwest Germanic have it as expected) isn’t mentioned, and I have no idea.

  34. January First-of-May says:

    The DWDS adds that the noun duck is also related; good to have that confirmed.

    I distinctly recall having read about this (which is to say, that ducks are called ducks because they duck) quite recently on LH, but I can’t recall where exactly.

    (I’m not sure whether I have shared that surprising etymological fact on my Twitter either.)
    [EDIT: I did not, but there are several other Google results for that exact phrase.]

  35. “Why does a duck go under the water?” “For divers(e) reasons.”

    “Why does a duck come up again?” “For sun(-)dry reasons.”

  36. @DM wondering about the lack of umlaut: maybe it’s from one of the upper German varieties that lost umlaut (e.g. Bruck for Brücke etc.)?

  37. Stu Clayton says:

    andäuen […] zudäuen … Fascinating. Both unknown to me

    The standard Kölsch for “push” is däue. On store entrance doors you sometimes see Trekke/Däue instead of Ziehen/Drücken. I now suspect it was an adventitious flub on my part to add a final “n” in *däuen. I’m not a Kölsch expert.

  38. Yes, I think I mentioned that here before, Kölsch “-e” corresponds to Standard “-en”, while Standard “-e” corresponds to Kölsch zero.

  39. PlasticPaddy says:

    Täufen would be too close to Teufel. So umlaut was dropped😊

  40. Stu Clayton says:

    This is related to the topic of how to recognize malware-loaded phishing attempts. I just received an internal circular from the bank IT concern I work with, warning about a “current malware campagne (Emotet)”. One of giveaways they list is “spelling mistakes” and sprachlicher Stil, meaning syntax and choice of words.

    The mistake I made with *däuen reveals me to the attentive reader as not being a born speaker of Kölsch. I have occasionally received invoice-related scam mail in English or German that was clearly not written by native speakers. Very rarely has the style been unremarkable. I often wonder why these scammers can’t find native speakers to help out. Are they so out of touch that they don’t even know any ? It’s implausible to assume that all native speakers are virtuous.

    More generally, this is the topic of how to recognize people of dubious intent who don’t belong to us … You don’t have to see a thick beard, it suffices that their language skills are not equal to the social level at which they try to operate. Thirty years ago, beards and bald heads were sure signs of inelegibility in young Germans, at least for party purposes. Then they gradually became acceptable. Now we are encouraged to exercise patience with the broken German of immigrants, just not in emails about your bank account.

    I suppose these explanatory puzzles can be partially resolved by invoking “context”. You don’t want to be operated on by a surgeon who speaks like an 8-year-old. Speech impediments used to be interpreted as signs of mental impairment, not of “speech impediment”. What it all adds up to in practice is: off the bat you can never be sure of anything. Time will give you a better understanding, is the hope. I think that is why it is reasonable to mistrust bad German in a single email about an unpaid invoice – there’s no expectation that you should wait for more such emails before passing judgement.

  41. I read somewhere that, at least for the “Nigerian type” scams, the spelling mistakes and bad grammar are a feature – they make sure that only very gullible or very greedy people respond, gullible or greedy to such an extent that they ignore the mistakes. I don’t know whether that’s true, and it makes no sense for phishing attempts directed at getting your bank account access data. Maybe the send-to-hit ratio is so low that it doesn’t even make sense to put effort in writing the mails.

  42. Stu Clayton says:

    That could be it. Politicians and the commenting classes don’t put much effort into what they say either, and it still sucks people in. Gullible people are especially inclined to believe those who treat them as not gullible.

  43. “How gullible are you? Is your gullibility located in some ‘gullibility center’ in your brain? Could a neurosurgeon reach in and perform some delicate operation to lower your gullibility, otherwise leaving you alone? If you believe this, you are pretty gullible, and should perhaps consider such an operation.” —Douglas Hofstadter, GEB

  44. Stu Clayton says:

    Clearly I’m in tune with the times, I never read GEB.

  45. @Hans: My understanding (picked up from rooting around in the scammers’ mailboxes, in my former days as a white hat) is that the scammers continue to use the scripts (“levels” being their normal word for specific scam setups) that produce good rates of success. This leads to a Darwinian process by which certain versions are selected for—those which produce victims who, once caught, tend to stay on the hook. And this does, as you said, seem to provide a preference for opening script thats that only the very stupid or uninformed are likely to fall for.

    As to Stu’s question: “I often wonder why these scammers can’t find native speakers to help out. Are they so out of touch that they don’t even know any?” the answer is a definite Yes. Most of these scammers, whether Nigerians or Romanians or whoever, have no access to native English speakers. Working these scams is a low-status job, not for people with connections.

  46. a preference for opening script thats that only the very stupid or uninformed are likely to fall for

    Nice self-demonstration!

  47. David Fried says:

    To return to the actual topic: “davenen” is the verb used in YIddish specifically for Jewish prayer. The verb used to describe praying by non-Jews is “mispalel zayn”–derived from Hebrew! And trying to find an etymology for “daven” is a fool’s errand–there are no even moderately convincing suggestions.

  48. Go figure…does that mean that priority prayer postage isn’t available to the non-Jew?

  49. David Marjanović says:

    DM wondering about the lack of umlaut: maybe it’s from one of the upper German varieties that lost umlaut

    Looks like it. I can’t find a conditioning factor in Brücke, Mücke, hüpfen, drücken, träumen, versäumen, Bäume, which all lack umlaut in my dialect… unless “followed by a labial or velar consonant” is enough, which is the case in taufen… but Sträucher does have umlaut.

    (Drucken has made it into the standard as “print”.)

    Täufen would be too close to Teufel. So umlaut was dropped😊

    Excellent. 🙂 Alas, those two vowels merged a few hundred years too late, and the devil has a short /f/.

Speak Your Mind

*