Spain, Land of Rabbits?

Balashon has a post on various Spain-related place names; unfortunately, the basis for it is a video called “The Names of Iberia Explained” which is full of folk etymologies and is not worth spending time on (it ends with a theory that the word gibberish derives from Gibraltar!), but the proposed etymology for Hispania is at least plausible, and it’s of enough interest to post here, namely that it’s derived from Phoenician tsepan “rabbit or hyrax (in Hebrew shafan שפן).” He quotes that bit from an earlier Balashon post, then says:

I should have been more careful, and pointed out, as Rabbi Natan Slifkin famously does here, that in ancient Hebrew the shafan is only a hyrax, not a rabbit. (In fact, according to Slifkin in his book, The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax, there were no rabbits in biblical Israel. The word commonly used today for rabbit – arnav ארנב, which in the Bible only appears in the female, arnevet ארנבת – refers to a hare, which is distinct from a rabbit.)

I am not competent to discuss the geographical spread of Lagomorpha and Hyracoidea a couple of millennia ago, but some of my readers probably are.


  1. May I suggest somewhat more probable origin of the name?

    “And it came to pass in the eighteenth year of king Josiah, that the king sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, the scribe, to the house of the Lord, saying”

    Kings 2 22:3

    As we can see, Shaphan was a Canaanite (Phoenician) male name in this period (7th century BC), don’t know how popular it was, but apparently quite well attested if it got into the Bible.


    A Phoenician captain by the name of Shaphan discovered Iberian peninsula and naturally his colleagues started calling the place i-spn-ya – ‘the Shaphan coast’.

    Riddle solved.

  2. Here is a b&w picture I saw that won a prize, and I first thought was of hares, but apparently they’re just very energetic rabbits. About John’s rabbits, rabbis and rebates I’m always struck that the Norwegian word for rabbit kanin is so confusingly (if you’re a bit deaf) close to the word that in practically every other euro-language means fireplace, kamin. Many is the small Norwegian child who’s asked whether I’ve seen their pet fireplace.

  3. PlasticPaddy says:

    Rabbits or gold mines?
    Pero la teoría más aceptada en la actualidad sugiere que «I-span-ya» se traduce como tierra donde se forjan metales, ya que «spy» en fenicio (raíz de la palabra «span») significa batir metales. Detrás de esta hipótesis de reciente creación se encuentra Jesús Luis Cunchillos y José Ángel Zamora, expertos en filología semita del CSIC, quienes realizaron un estudio filológico comparativo entre varias lenguas semitas y determinaron que el nombre tiene su origen en la fama de las minas de oro de la Península Ibérica.

  4. kanin

    Norwegians are confused. Canines are dogs, not rabbits.

  5. Lars Mathiesen says:

    So all us germanics have misunderstood the origin and call it Spain/Spanien because we thought that was probably the original form and the E- was epenthetic, silly buggers can’t even be trusted to pronounce the name of their own country properly so we have to fix it-like? (Hispania in Latin should have been a clue).

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Maybe Italian Spagna was involved.

    I thought the “rabbits mistaken as hyraxes” etymology was common knowledge in, like, present circles? I hadn’t heard of the semantically attractive “smelting” one, though.

    Norwegians are confused. Canines are dogs, not rabbits.

    I’ve long thought that Kaninchen “rabbit” must be a half-calque of cunīculus “rabbit” understood as *canīculus “itsy-bitsy doggy”. Wiktionary on cunīculus is confusing, though:

    From Ancient Greek κόνικλος (kóniklos), probably of Iberian or Celtiberian origin; compare Basque untxi (“rabbit”), Mozarabic conchair (“greyhound”). The original meaning “burrow” adapted to the rabbit or vice versa.

    No sources are cited.

  7. The land-of-rabbits theory has inevitably led to jokes based on the vulgar mean of “conejo”.

  8. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Is the loss of the initial vowel regular in Italian?

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Loss of the distinction between sC- and isC- is regular; I think the vowel resurfaces when there are enough consonants around it, but otherwise it’s lost.

  10. John Cowan says:

    All Latin sC- became isC- in Common Romance (with the possible exception of Romanian, which shows no trace of it); in Western Romance this shifted to /ɛ/ like all other short /i/, but in Italian it remained. Since then, the standard has been chipping away at it: the last redoubt was after in: only in the 20C did in iSvizzera become in Svizzera.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    to /ɛ/

    To /e/, which then shifted further to [ɛ] in Spanish while /ɛ/ shifted to [iɛ].

  12. Doesn’t Sepharad itself argue against s-f-n?

    This was the New World of the early millennium, the primary reason the powerful city state kingdoms of the Levant thrived. Would the etymological understanding have vanished among closely related Hebrews who were participants in the trade?

    It’s like imagining Scots calling Long Island Lardisser just because.

  13. The Iberian or Celtiberian origin of cuniculus is attested in Pliny the Elder, Book 8: “leporum generis sunt et quos Hispania cuniculos appellat, fecunditatis innumerae famemque Baliarum insulis populatis messibus afferentes”.

    According to the “Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen”, MIddle Low German konin or kanin was borrowed from Old French con(n)in, a variant of connil. The diminutive Kaninchen was apparently introduced into Standard High German by Luther.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    The other way around: Standard German is based on Luther’s works to a large extent.

    Other diminutive-only animal names exist, e.g. Eichhörnchen (and a heap of variants) “squirrel”, Frettchen “ferret”.

  15. Eichhörnchen has come up a surprising number of times at LH: Grumbly Stu in 2009 and again in 2010 (“I hope we’re not going off on another ‘little oakhorn’ chase”) and 2011 (“Two banal German examples are Eichhörnchen and Leibchen“) and of course a couple years ago there was Oachkazlschwoaf. What a squirrely site!

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    Somewhere a squirrel … squirreled.

  17. John Cowan says:

    Yes, I don’t know why I wrote /ɛ/ there.

  18. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @JC, are you saying that the inherited i- in Hispania was indistinguishable from the epenthetic i- in isC-, and got took away with the others?

  19. PlasticPaddy says:

    What is the reason for Latin Hispalis > It. Seviglia? Was this just some sort of rewrite because of the dark ages and/or Moorish invasion?

  20. January First-of-May says:

    Doesn’t Sepharad itself argue against s-f-n?

    I was under the impression that “Sepharad” was a Biblical place name of unclear meaning (apparently thought to be Sardis, Lydia) that was applied to Spain because it sounded kinda similar.
    This is probably more plausible if the Jewish pronunciation of “Hispania” had a /f/ in it at the time.

    (There’s a mildly parallel example in Tsarfat = France; in this case, it’s known what Tsarfat was, and it’s known that “France” doesn’t actually derive from that, so it’s obvious that someone had to manually transfer the name.
    With Sepharad, things are muddier on both sides, so it’s not that easy.)

  21. I was under the impression that “Sepharad” was a Biblical place name of unclear meaning (apparently thought to be Sardis, Lydia) that was applied to Spain because it sounded kinda similar.

    That was my impression as well.

  22. @PlasticPaddy: The Umayyads called it Ishbiliyya, which is a basically regular development from the Latin. Arabic has no /p/, and the vowel changes demonstrate imala, which was apparently common in the Arabic dialect that developed in Moorish Iberia.

  23. Here’s perhaps all you could ever want on Hispalis > It. Seviglia.:

    except it’s in Spanish. A summary would be that it was mediated by the Arab conquest. The p became b Isbalia in Arabic, (and then some other things happened in Arabic) but when it came back into Spanish, sb was a difficult cluster that was eased by a vowel in between, which new unaccented vowel presumably facilitated the dropping of the unaccented initial vowel.

    >Išbīliya se adaptó a la fonética castellana como Sevilla por la dificultad de pronunciar el grupo /-sb-/, por la tendencia desde época romana a la apertura de /i/ pretónica en /e/, y por la analogía con el castellano villa.

    it doesn’t actually bring you all the way to Seviglia, but I think the Italian either flows from the Spanish or had the same difficulty with sb and found the same solution.

    The author settles on a Punic word cognate either with Hebrew Ishba’al (a Biblical name) or with Shephelah (lowlands, including “the Shephelah”) as the likely source of Hispalis.

    O mi sbaglio.

  24. >>Doesn’t Sepharad itself argue against s-f-n?

    >I was under the impression that “Sepharad” was a Biblical place name of unclear meaning (apparently thought to be Sardis, Lydia) that was applied to Spain because it sounded kinda similar.
    This is probably more plausible if the Jewish pronunciation of “Hispania” had a /f/ in it at the time.

    Sure. I was making a slightly different point. Sepharad certainly was substituted; and it seems likely that was made possible by similarity to an existing Hebrew place name related to whatever name gave rise to Hispania.

    I would expect such a substitution is more likely if the existing Hebrew name was simply a foreign word. For instance, maybe derived from a pre-Punic place-name.

    If the Punics understood the name to mean “island of rabbits,” I would expect the Hebrew place-name would have maintained that meaning, and that this would block the substitution of a name similar in sound but meaningless.

    Some of this is based on my intuition that the Hebrew-speaking community would have remained in pretty close contact with Phoenician- and Punic- speakers and their trade links, whether via boys running away to Sidon to go to sea, or via the merchant community at Alexandria. I suspect Hispania was terra cognita for Jews throughout the first millennium BCE.

    I find it interesting that there were large medieval Jewish communities in places that had been Punic-speaking and without documented Jewish communities a few centuries before, particularly in Roman Hispania, and have wondered whether merging into the Jewish community was one way that Punic speakers maintained identity and language in the face of Romanization and the growth of Christianity (though in North Africa, Christianity was in part Punic-speaking.) That in turn has made me wonder whether Jewish identity had always blended readily into Punic-speaking identities anywhere west of Sinai.

  25. Graham Asher says:

    See George R Stewart’s ‘Names on the Globe’ (p.189 in my copy) for more on this. Extract:

    “Most important of all the possibly Phoenician namings is Spain itself. It occurs in record first as Spania, in Greek. The Romans rendered it as Hispania, with the opening letters suggesting the Semitic definite article. The name, however, with its three consonants, s-p-n, resembles a Hebrew-Phoenician three-letter root, and one such comes readily to hand is the word for rabbit or cony. Some early scholars eagerly concluded that the early traders had been impressed by the number of rabbits, and thus named the whole country. While not impossible, this derivation is highly unlikely, and these scholars could not even demonstrate that the Iberian peninsula, about 1000 B.C., was notable for rabbits. When we explore the other applications of the root, however, we find the basic idea to be “conceal, cover,” so that the animal may have been itself named for being a burrower. Moreover, in biblical usage the meaning is extended to “something hidden,” and even specifically to “hidden treasure.” At this point we should recall that the Phoenicians went to Spain primarily for metals, which were dug from the earth. The country might then be called “the mine.” We can recall that a large part of California was long known as The Diggings.”

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