Search Results for: Philologos


Once again aldiboronti, in his usual place of business at Wordorigins, comes up with a great link: the Philologos column at the Forward. Aldi cites the column on the Hebrew word for ‘ladybug,’ parat Moshe rabbenu (literally ‘Moses’ cow’), which quotes quite a few European terms for that useful insect (mangling the Russian bozh’ya korovka as bozha kapovka, so use with caution), and I enjoyed the detailed investigation of the etymology of Yiddish shmergl ‘emery,’ which traces it back to Latin smericulum and Greek smaragdos ‘emerald’; I think the bald assertion that the latter is borrowed from Sanskrit marakata goes beyond the evidence, but this is, after all, a newspaper column, not a linguistic journal. Most enjoyable.

Hillel Halkin Reveals All!

Benjamin Ivry has a fascinating Forward interview with Hillel Halkin that includes the following tidbits of LH interest:

In a 2011 interview, you said that as a young reader, you strongly identified with the character of Stephen Dedalus the conflicted Catholic protagonist of James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.” Where are the affinities?

I still have that identification with Stephen, including the Stephen in “Ulysses.” I think “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is perhaps the most beautiful English novel. I’ve read it and read it many times. My own experience of Judaism was very similar to Stephen’s growing up and rebelling against Catholicism. Stephen never gives up on being a Catholic, but in being a believing Catholic. He still thinks like a Catholic and I think that’s true of me too [for Judaism]. […]

[Read more…]


Balashon’s latest post, bareket and emerald, is about a connection I had forgotten:

From Hebrew (or some other cognate Semitic language, like the Akkadian barraqtu), bareket entered into Greek as smaragdos, which Latin borrowed as smaragdus, eventually becoming esmaraldus in Medieval Latin, esmeraude in French, and then “emerald” in English.

This might seem like a strange journey, particularly from bareket to smaragdos. But as this Philologos column explains (along with many other interesting linguistic details about the words we’ve discussed here and more) it’s reasonable when you look at how certain letters are exchanged in phonetic shifts.

Philologos actually promotes a different theory than what I’ve presented here. He says that the Hebrew baraket may have its origin in a Sanskrit word – marakata […]

Most of the sources I looked at, including Klein and the Online Etymology Dictionary say the Sanskrit word was borrowed from a Semitic source. (For further discussion see this page).

I say “had forgotten” because it turns out I wrote about it in 2004:

I enjoyed [Philologos’s] detailed investigation of the etymology of Yiddish shmergl ‘emery,’ which traces it back to Latin smericulum and Greek smaragdos ‘emerald’; I think the bald assertion that the latter is borrowed from Sanskrit marakata goes beyond the evidence, but this is, after all, a newspaper column, not a linguistic journal.

AHD fudges the details of the relationships with not one but two instances of “akin to”:

[Middle English emeraude, from Old French, from Medieval Latin esmeralda, esmeraldus, from Latin smaragdus, from Greek smaragdos; akin to Sanskrit marakatam, probably of Semitic origin; akin to Akkadian barraqtu and Hebrew bāreqet, a kind of gemstone (probably emerald); see brq in the Appendix of Semitic roots.]

Anybody know anything more about this tangle?


Back in 2008, Philologos of the Forward wrote about one of the best words I’ve ever seen:

Khnyok — it’s pronounced as one syllable, a feat best managed by pretending to clear your throat and blow your nose at the same time — is Yiddish. In my own enlightened Orthodox, English-speaking New York family (my father was born in Belarus, my mother in Lithuania), a khnyok was a sanctimonious religious prig, and this is what the word means to most of its users today. Rarely found in the vocabulary of American-born secular or non-Orthodox Jews, it is for the most part disparagingly used by Jews who are religiously observant themselves for the holier-than-thou super-observant. The plural of khnyok is khnyokes (two syllables, please), the adjective is khnyokish, and the past participle is farkhnyokt, which denotes someone who has become a khnyok or more khnyokish than he or she once was.

So far, the case of khnyok seems simple enough. But when one delves into the word’s origins and history, the plot thickens considerably. […]

We can now come to some tentative conclusions. As Langer was writing about the years 1913 and 1914, his use of khnyok must reflect an early meaning — and, unexpectedly, the word seems to have started out not as an anti-Hasidic slur but as a term used by some Hasidim to disparage other Hasidim who went to ascetic extremes of personal hygiene and dress to demonstrate their contempt for worldly existence. […] From there, the word left the confines of the Hasidic community and went off in different directions: Because unkemptness is associated with oafishness, it came to mean a bungler or schlimazel; because schlimazels are often doormats for others (it’s on the schlimazel, you’ll recall, that the schlemiel spills the chicken soup), it came to mean a whiner or mollycoddle, and because its original meaning of an extreme Hasid was picked up by misnagdim, or anti-Hasidic Jews, it eventually became a derogatory term both for Hasidim in general and for a religious fanatic of any stripe. Today, it survives only in the last of these meanings.

Still unanswered is the question of khnyok’s etymology. Harkavy’s suggestion of Russian khnyika does not really explain anything and needs, I think, to be discarded. If any of you has a better idea, let’s hear it.

I just wish my friend Allan were still alive, because he could have given me some great reminiscences about this word, and if he didn’t already know it, how he would have loved it!

Carissa and Karanda.

I was looking up something else in Alan Davidson’s Penguin Companion to Food (see this post) when my eye was caught by an entry “Carissa and Karanda.” Both exotic-sounding words were unknown to me; the entry began:

two closely related fruits of which the former is indigenous to S. Africa and the latter to S. Asia. Carissa is a botanical as well as a common name, referring to the genus of thorny, fruiting shrubs to which both fruits belong.

It went on to say that carissa is also known as Natal plum and amantugula and is native to South Africa, while the karanda is cultivated in India and some parts of Southeast Asia and East Africa. Naturally, I wanted to know where the names came from; I wasn’t too surprised that neither was in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or American Heritage, but I was surprised they weren’t in the Concise Oxford and astonished they weren’t in the OED. Fortunately, both are in the Third New International (score one for Merriam-Webster!); the entry for karanda sends the reader to their main entry, s.v. caraunda, where we learn that it’s Hindi, from Sanskrit karamardaka. Unfortunately, the etymology for carissa simply says NL (New Latin), but Google Books found Umberto Quattrocchi’s CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names, where I found:

In Sanskrit kryshina means dark blue or black, because of the ripe fruits; the shrub is called krishnaphala; in Malayam it is called karimulla, possibly from kari “dark, black” and mullu “thorny, thorns,” referring to the fruits and thorns […]

It’s not altogether clear what they’re suggesting about about the relation between the Sanskrit and Malayalam words or about how it came into English, but that’s all I’ve got.

Also, I regret to announce that the Forward‘s wonderful language columnist, Philologos, whom I’ve quoted more than once here, is calling it quits:

The person known as Philologos wished to remain anonymous to our readers, and through the years we have respected that request. Now we must respect another request — to retire from writing the column for the Forward.

So it is with sadness and a great deal of gratitude that we bid farewell to a valued member of the Forward family. The column that appears in this week’s edition will be the last. It’s been an epic run.

Pharewell, Phil (and thanks for the link, Paul)!

Scots Yiddish.

Philologos at the Forward has a fine column on a long-forgotten dialect:

Recently, as Scotland’s independence vote began to loom large in the media, someone asked me if I had ever heard of Scots Yiddish. “I canna say that I have,” I answered, only to be told that there was an entire chapter on the subject in David Daiches’s autobiographical “Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood.” Scots Yiddish? I decided to have a look.

The dialect turns out to be “merely a Scottish version, one might say, of the English that Eastern European Jewish immigrants were speaking on the streets of New York in the same period”:

Still, such “Scots Yiddish” has a charm that the English of Orchard or Delancey Street never had. “Vot time’s yer barmitzvie, laddie?” Daiches recalls being asked by a fellow synagogue-goer shortly before his 13th birthday. “Ye’ll hae a drap o’bramfen. Ye ken: Nem a schmeck fun Dzon Beck.” Bronfn is Yiddish for liquor (in Eastern Europe it generally meant vodka, but Edinburgh is whisky land), while “Nem a shmek,” Yiddish for “Have a taste,” is, as Daiches points out, a clever translation that preserves the rhyme of the first half of the advertising slogan “Take a peg of John Begg.” And when Daiches once asked someone in the same synagogue why he scolded a visitor for talking during services when he was wont to talk during them himself, the reply was:

“Two men vent into a poob and ordered a glass beer. Dey hadna been in dat poob more dan vonce or twice before. Vell, day sip deir beer un’ dey sit talking un’ schmoosing. Dey sit un’ talk un’ talk. At last de barman leans over de counter and he says to dem: ‘Oot!’ Nu, dat’s how it is mit a shul. I come here every veek and Hakodosh Borukh Hu [the Holy One Blessed Be He — that is God] kens me vell, un’ he don’t mind if I take it easy. But dese bleggages dat come vonce or twice a year — no! Dey daven or dey shot op!”

There are more suggested derivations, as well as discussion of the purported mutual intelligibility of broad Scots and Yiddish, at the link. Also, I actually own a copy of Two Worlds, and now I’m even more eager to read it. (Thanks, Paul!)

Counting and Telling.

I first wrote about the Philologos column of the Forward back in 2004, and once again they’ve come up with a nice bit of language history worth sharing in Recounting a Tale of Counting and Telling. It takes off from the quoted observation that Hebrew “sefer, ‘writing,’ ‘document,’ ‘book,’ and sofer, ‘scribe,’ ‘enumerator,’ ‘secretary,’ derive from one and the same verbal root s-f-r, meaning ‘to count, ‘to number,’ ‘to report,’ and ‘to recount,’” and goes on to “comment on the interesting fact that a verbal relationship between counting and narrating is not limited to Hebrew”:

Such a linkage exists in English, too — and not only in “count” and “recount,” two words mentioned by Labuschagne. We also find it in the verb “to tell,” which has the second, now archaic meaning of “to count,” as in a phrase like “to tell [the beads on] a rosary.”

Nor is English the only language that resembles Hebrew in this respect. German has zahlen, “to count,” and erzahlen, “to tell”; in Dutch this is tellen and vertellen; in Danish, taelle and fortaelle. All these languages belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family — but a “count-tell” relationship is not restricted to it. In the Romance family of Indo-European, we encounter the same thing. In French, for example, compter is “to count,” and conter is “to tell” or “to relate.” In Italian it’s contare and reccontare. In Spanish a single verb, contar, means both “to count” and “to tell,” so that cuenta is a numerical reckoning or a bill, and cuento is a story.

[…] Let’s start with the Hebrew root s-f-r. “He counted” in Hebrew is “hu safar,” while “he told” is “hu sipper,” using the pi’el construction. Both are related to the Akkadian (old Babylonian) verb shaparu, whose original meaning was “to send,” but which in time came to mean “to send a letter,” and eventually, “to tell” or “to relate,” since this is what letters often do. The root has like meanings in other Semitic languages, but only in Hebrew did it take on the additional meaning of “to count,” which was clearly a later development.

In the Romance languages, on the other hand, the process was reversed. In classical Latin, computare — the source of our English “compute” — originally meant only “to count” or “to do sums.” Not until Late Latin, from which the various Romance languages evolved, did it take on the sense of “to relate.” Yet classical Latin had its own “count” — “tell” pair in enumerare, a verb that derived from numerus, “number” but also had the sense of “to narrate.”

And now for our third case: Old English tellan, the ancestor of our modern “to tell.” Its oldest meaning was “to count,” as it was in other Germanic languages, which later added the meaning of “to relate” with the help of prefixes like German –er and Dutch ver-. In addition, however, tellan in Old English also meant “to put [something] in order.” And that, of course, is the link between counting and telling. To count is to put numbers in their proper order, and to tell a story or relate an incident is to put events in their proper order, first things first and last things last. This is why the two things are associated in so many languages, including Hebrew.

Commenters point out that in Slavic, the root chit– means both ‘count’ (cf. Russian число < *chit-slo ‘number’) and ‘read’ (cf. Russian читать ‘to read’); it’s related to Sanskrit cit– ‘perceive, take note of’ (related to ketas ‘thought’). Thanks for the link, Paul!


Adam Smyth’s LRB review of Mr Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age by Dror Wahrman starts with an excursus on the varied fates of printed matter:

Most printed texts lived very briefly, and then were gone for ever. About one in ten thousand 16th-century broadside ballads survives today. Where did printed pages go to die? Some were used for lining pie dishes; for lighting pipes; for wrapping vegetables at Bucklersbury Market, or drugs at the apothecary’s, or (according to Henry Fitzgeffrey) ‘to dry Tobacco in’. ‘Great Iulius Commentaries lies and rots,’ the poet and waterman John Taylor wrote, ‘as good for nothing but stoppe mustard pots.’ Sir William Cornwallis kept ‘pamphlets and lying-stories and two-penny poets’ in his privy, and many texts were ‘pressed into general service’, as Margaret Spufford put it in Small Books and Pleasant Histories (1981), as toilet paper. Books were pulled apart to serve in the binding and endpapers of later books, the pages of an unwanted Bible perhaps padding the spine of an unholy prose romance. A Booke of Common Prayer (1549) in Lambeth Palace Library has endpapers made from a broadside almanac of 1548; the Folger Shakespeare Library copy of The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng (1521), John Skelton’s great poem of drunkenness, survives only because it was used as waste paper for the binding of another book. To read an early modern book was to confront the broken, recycled material remains of former texts, and the effect is of a kind of memory or haunting: of a book remembering its origins. Thomas Nashe imagined his printed pages being used to wrap expensive slippers (‘velvet pantofles’), ‘so they be not … mangy at the toes, like an ape about the mouth’. As Leah Price showed recently in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, we can do many things to books other than read them.

This reminded me of the more pressing need for reuse during the terrible Petrograd winter of 1919; Viktor Shklovsky is writing (in his 1970 book of criticism and reminiscence Тетива [Bowstring]) about his friend and fellow literary theorist Boris Eikhenbaum:

Boris had two rooms. He lived in the small one, so he could be warmer; he would sit in front of the iron stove on the floor on top of a pile of books and read them, tearing pages out of them and pushing the rest into the stove. He was a very educated man with a superb knowledge of Russian poetry and periodicals. In those years he passed his library through fire.

[Read more…]


Philologos at the Forward has a review of what sounds like an interesting book, Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Rutgers University Press, 2012), by the sociolinguist Sarah Bunin Benor. It explains abbreviations like FFT, FFB, and BT and describes various features of the speech of Orthodox American Jews; I thought I’d highlight this paragraph:

Two other peculiarities complete Benor’s list. One is a singsong “talmudic” intonation, particularly in sentences with logical reasoning expressed in dependent clauses like, “If you were going to the grocery anyway, why didn’t you buy some bread?” The other is what Benor calls a “hesitation click” — a “tsk”-sound used, like “um,” to give the speaker time to think of what to say next. (Although she is no doubt correct in ascribing this to Israeli influence, she errs in thinking that it is used this way in Israeli Hebrew. The Israeli “tsk” simply means “No,” although when occurring in midsentence in what Binor rightly calls a “corrective click,” this “no” can have the sense of, “On second thought, that isn’t what I really wanted to say, so I’ll try to say it again.” This is probably how, misinterpreted by Orthodox American Jews exposed to Israeli speech, it became an American Jewish “hesitation click.”)

Thanks for the link, Jonathan!


From the oldest Hebrew to the newest: the Forward had Judith Shulevitz, “a cultural critic and magazine editor who helped to start both Slate and Lingua Franca,” guest-edit a special section on Parsing Israeli Slang. At that page you will find links to Stuart Schoffman on haval al hazman ‘It’s a waste of time,’ Janet Aviad on ha-matzav ‘the situation,’ Philologos on Sa l’shalom ‘You can go now’ (literally ‘Go in peace,’ a phrase with an ancient pedigree), Gail Hareven on hazui ‘weird’ (literally ‘hallucinated’), Toby Perl Freilich on freier ‘sucker, naif’ (there is no mention of the different but comparable Russian фраер fraer ‘noncriminal,’ which presumably has the same Yiddish origin), Ruvik Rosenthal on ha-medina ‘the state’ (not slang, but an interesting cultural analysis), and Yossi Klein Halevi on large—yes, the English word, but borrowed as a measure of character: “‘Tihiyeh large,’ Israelis exhort each other: ‘Be generous, expansive, grand.'” Thanks for the link, Scott!