Ben Hur.

My wife and I were watching the 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston, which is not as bad as I had vaguely remembered (though it is too slow and full of over-the-top pompous music), and it occurred to me to wonder about the name. The Wikipedia article Judah Ben-Hur has an etymology section that reads as follows:

Wallace wrote that he chose the name Ben-Hur “because it was biblical, and easily spelled, printed and pronounced.” The name appears once in the Bible (Hebrew: בן־חור‎), as the name of one of King Solomon’s twelve district governors (1 Kings 4:8). Whether that was a proper name, or the person was being referred to as “the son of Hur” is not clear. The specific meaning of “Hur” is also unclear; among other possibilities, it may mean “something white” or “hollow or depressed ground”.

I imagine they’re right about Wallace’s vague ideas on the subject, but I was wondering if any of my readers might have useful thoughts about Hur, the Hebrew name/word.


  1. The most plausible explanation I’ve read relates it to ħor~ħōr ‘noble’, cf. ħūrām~ħīrām aka Hiram, king of Tyre. ħōr itself has been suggested to be related to the identical nounn meaning ‘white linen’, from ħwr ‘white’.

    Many etymologies of Biblical names are no more than clever guesses, and this is no exception.

    All the same, I should drop some money on an up-to-date etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, of which there are now several.

  2. Gur and a full form Gur-Arye are well-known surnames (In the scripture, Yehuda is likened to lion cub, Gur-Arye), and Hur / Hurko is a diminutive form of Biblical personal name Urye

  3. I remember Ben Hur from mention in Alfred Bester’s classic SF story “Disappearing Act”.

  4. Hur / Hurko is a diminutive form of Biblical personal name Urye

    What? In what language?

    What is “Urye”? Uriah?

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    In Yiddish, sorry for skipping this detail. Haven’t checked what dialect. It’s from an index to Beider dictionary of names

  6. ħor~ħōr ‘noble’ is presumably cognate to Arabic ħurr “free” – in which case it seems unlikely to be cognate to ħūr, since the root would be ħrr rather than ħwr.


    Firstly, I confess that I am not as academically-trained as some of the commentators here are and, hence, that is one of the reasons I am incapable of using certain technical terms. Second, and relating to this particular thread, I had always assumed that Hur meant free in both Hebrew, Arabic and related languages (possibly). Made sense upon viewing the film/movie back in the day, and still seems valid today (difference being that I was wholly ignorant of Hebrew and its similarity to Arabic when I first watched the movie, whereas I am somewhat less ignorant today, having amassed 40 or so modern Hebrew words). Third, apologies for the long-winded message which might even come across as somewhat redundant. Fourth, my sincere compliments to you Languagehat for your continued efforts.

  8. Graham Asher says

    Slightly off topic but amusing: I suppose everyone’s heard of Freud’s patient who couldn’t remember the name of the book because (according to Freud) she was inhibited by guilt over her own promiscuity, and the name Ben Hur sounded to her like the German for ‘I’m a whore’.

  9. Ha! I hadn’t heard of it, so thanks for that.

  10. Savalonôs says

    I suppose the reading “white” would make Ben Hur a cognate of the houri of Quranic paradise fame.

  11. Nobody likes the transparent “son of a hole”?

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Freud’s patient

    I read Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens years ago with a great enjoyment which I am sure I would not have experienced if I had felt called upon to actually believe any of it. I recall with particular delight his account of a student who could not remember Lucretius’

    … medio de fonte leporum,
    Surgit amari aliquid, quod in ipsis floribus angat

    because he was worried that his girlfriend’s period was late (a-liquid. See?)

    I wish my neuroses were as erudite. Sadly, I am just not Viennese enough. Too late now…

  13. I should drop some money on an up-to-date etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, of which there are now several

    Any recommendations?

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    If it were from *ħurr -> ħōr you wouldn’t (on average) have expected the spelling with vav, but that would hardly rule it out (the ‘kor’ unit of capacity כור gets spelt that way, despite Akkadian kurrum, after all.) And “Free” seems a more plausible name than “Pit” or even “White.”*

    Uhuru! (Ant, man, bee …)

    *Though there is Brad Pit, I guess (perhaps casting for the remake.) And I did once encounter a man in Ghana whose personal name was (literally) The Medicine Has Got Lost. So who knows?

  15. David Marjanović says

    and the name Ben Hur sounded to her like the German for ‘I’m a whore’

    Alas, there is no known German variety with the pin-pen merger… but yes, Hur is funny in itself, and would definitely have made any of Freud’s patients blush really hard.

  16. Any recommendations?

    Since you read Hebrew, I would get Kaddari’s dictionary (מנחם צבי קדרי ,מילון העברית המקראית). Koehler and Baumgartner’s five volumes are over-the-top detailed, but are prohibitively expensive, unless you get an electronic version. Kaddari is concise but detailed, and is the most recent (2006). You can get it for under $100.

    Here is a really nice bibliography of grammars, dictionaries and other materials, Languages of the Ancient Near East: An Annotated Bibliography, by Huehnergard and Pat-El.

    The Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Database is a work in progress.

  17. Thank you!

  18. >And “Free” seems a more plausible name than “Pit” or even “White.”*

    Mel Blanc, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Jack White and Whitey Bulger would all like to know why you think that.

  19. Genghis Khan’s second son was named Chagaatai which literally translates as “Whitey”. There is an interesting family drama back story to that, but that’s offtopic here.

  20. @SFReader: Hat has said that he welcomes off-topic discussion, so go ahead if you like.

  21. Genghis Khan’s wife Borte was kidnapped by the Merkit tribe. Genghis assembled a coalition of Mongol tribes, defeated the Merkits and managed to free his wife who turned out to be pregnant.

    Soon she gave birth to Juchi, Genghis’ firstborn son. Juchi, whose name is variously translated as “Guest” or “the Unexpected one” had dark hair like majority of Mongols. But Genghis himself and his entire clan was blond.

    Nevertheless, he accepted Juchi as his son and never questioned his legitimacy. But when his second son was born who had same hair color as his father, he named him Chagaatai “Whitey”, in clear reference to his hair color.

  22. Great story!

  23. Jim Parish says

    SFReader: what is your source for Genghis’ clan being blond?

  24. While Genghis Khan was very clear in public about accepting his eldest son’s legitimacy, Chagatai openly contested Jochi’s parentage, and it seems that Jochi was never considered a viable successor as to their father as Khagan. There may have been a real current of dissatisfaction with Jochi among the Mongol chiefs, although we obviously do not know what passed between Temujin and his eldest son in private. When the empire was divided into quarters, Jochi received the portion farthest to the west, most distant from the Mongol heartland, and when most of the Mongol leaders returned east after the conquest of Persia, Jochi stayed in the West and never saw his father again.

  25. Rashid ad-din and the Secret History of Mongols both mention that fact.

    Rashid even tells an anecdote in biography of Khubilai Khan that Genghis was really surprised that the boy wasn’t red-haired like the rest of the family and said he probably took after his maternal uncles (from Kereit tribe)

  26. David Marjanović says

    …Blond or red-haired?

    (Ghosts, of course, have red hair and green eyes in China, and the same claim exists about Attila…)

  27. It’s different race, so probably neither.

    Judging by what I’ve seen of pictures of “blond Mongolians” it was more like light brown or something.

  28. When Mongols met real blondes from Europe, they called them using corresponding horse coat color name!

  29. marie-lucie says

    SFR: Why not? No need to coin a new word when there was an appropriate one ready for use already.

    In English one common hair colour is known by the unappetizing name “dirty blonde”. I think this name could advantageously be replaced by “fauve”, since it is approximately the colour of a lion, the king of beasts.

  30. the unappetizing name “dirty blonde”

    “Strawberry blonde” tastes all right.

  31. marie-lucie says

    Isn’t “strawberry blonde” closer to “red” hair? a complimentary name, unlike “dirty blonde” which suggests unwashed hair.

  32. m-l, I don’t know the reason for either name although I’m pretty sure they’re both about colour rather than hair quality. But dirt colour, strawberry colour? I have so I’m told mouse colour. Besides strawberry I’ve noticed that hair products often get culinary names: mousse, gel, herbal, mango and other fruits. And yet who’d want to eat hair?

  33. And “Free” seems a more plausible name than “Pit” or even “White.”*

    “Pit” doesn’t seem that unlikely as a name either: besides Pitt the Elder, Pitt the Younger and Pitt the Brad, there are also names like Holman, Petts, Miner and their equivalents in other languages.

  34. John Cowan says

    WP gives three etymologies for Holman, none of them directly related to pits: ‘holy man’, ‘holly man’, and ‘holh-man’ (where holh > hollow, holler, also names like Holbourn).

  35. The divide between a hollow and a pit doesn’t strike me as a very deep one.

  36. An Appalachian hollow is simply a narrow valley, though I prefer to spell it “holler,” since in my idiolect (and I think that of others of my class and age) it’s phonemically distinct from the adjective “hollow.”

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t think “dirty blonde” is generally understood to be pejorative or “unappetizing” by native speakers in AmEng, although I agree it plausibly seems like it ought to be. I expect it’s just an idiom, and therefore non-compositional in the relevant dimension. One possible explanation (although this is speculative conjecture on my part) might be that blondness is viewed positively enough that even partial/limited/imperfect blondness is quite desirable (especially if natural, cf. the pejoratively-loaded “bottle blonde”), such that the qualifying adjective (while perhaps negative in the abstract) doesn’t overcome the positive vibe of the phrase.

  38. Mel Blanc, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Jack White and Whitey Bulger would all like to know why you think that

    Not to mention Laban the Aramite.

  39. And Andrei Bely.

  40. Lars (the original one) says

    Because almost white, naturally light blonde hair is so common in Denmark, we tend to restrict the word blond to that color, and the rest of the English ‘blond’ spectrum is divided into kommunefarvet (common), leverpostejsfarvet (liver pâté) and brunt (brown). A US ‘brunette’ would be called mørkhåret (dark), while sorthåret (black) denotes the darkest shades.

    The point being that kommune now evokes kommunen (‘the local council’) which is a pretty boring institution, if not actively obnoxious (that would be the tax people), and while liver pâté might taste good, visually it’s about the farthest you can get from exciting. So maybe not pejorative, but certainly not terms of praise either.

  41. David Marjanović says

    the pejoratively-loaded “bottle blonde”

    Blonde jokes about such people are justified with “true blondness comes from within”.

    Brunette, BTW, is one of those French words that only exist outside of France and probably outside the whole French language. It’s in common use in German, though, so it’s not just English… The rest of the spectrum is described like other colors, with “light” and “dark”, or “medium” if need be: dunkelblond, hellbraun, mittelbraun and the like.

  42. John Cowan says

    In the TLFI entry for -et, -ette there is this sub-entry:

    En partic. [Avec des adj. de couleur] Blanchet, blondinet(te), (blondinet, blondinette) brunet(te), (brunet, brunette) jaunet. Cf. également les emplois substantivés et lexicalisés : blanquette, bluet ou bleuet, griset, jaunet, roselet, rouget.

    There is a second entry for brunette n., suggesting that it is something of a nonce word:

    BRUNETTE, subst. fém.
    Vx. Romance :
    … elle [Sara] lui apporta [à Nicolas] (…) quelques chansons très-bien choisies, de celles qu’on appelait brunettes, et lui chanta celle qui avait le plus de rapport avec la situation qu’elle voulait prendre vis-à-vis de lui.
    NERVAL, Les Illuminés, 1852, p. 206.

    Prononc. : [brynɛt]. Étymol. et Hist. 1752 (Trév.). Peut-être p. ext. de brunet(te)* parce qu’il était question de personne brune et mignonne dans ces romances.

  43. Also Bianca Jagger.

  44. And Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, although he was not exactly blond.

  45. Or Helen DeWitt

  46. Or Count Belisarius.

  47. Or Bai Juyi aka Po Chü-i (居易).

  48. Or Erik Weisz / Ehrich Weiss (aka Harry Houdini).

    Or Albus Dumbledore.

  49. David Eddyshaw says

    Or Count Belisarius

    Only if you swallow Robert Graves’s surely impossible etymology. I suspect he got the idea from Laura Riding, who in linguistic matters as in much else was abundantly full of it.

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