As occasionally happens, I came across a mention of Edmond Jabès, one of those many famous French literary persons I have not tried to read, and this time I thought “What kind of name is Jabès?” So of course I hied me to Wikipedia, where I found:

Edmond Jabès (French: [ʒabɛs]; Arabic: إدمون جابيس; Cairo, April 14, 1912 – Paris, January 2, 1991) was a French writer and poet of Egyptian origin, and one of the best known literary figures writing in French after World War II.

Which then led to the question “If he’s of Egyptian origin, why isn’t it Gabès? And, again, what kind of name is it?” I tried Arabic Wikipedia, which told me (with the help of Google Translate) “The truth is that his family name is not Western, as some imagine, as it is the Western writing of the word ‘frowns,’ which is a Hebrew name. Its Arabic meaning is ‘furrowing his eyebrows,’ but writing the name in Latin letters required pronouncing it this way: ‘Jabis.’” Then I searched Google Books, where I found this dubiously enlightening passage from Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès, by Rosmarie Waldrop (pp. 91-92):

And now, [Rabbi Braude] looked over at Edmond and asked himself, “Jabès. Jabès. What does that name mean?”

I stuck my foot in again by noting that, in the Old Testament, it is said to mean he will cause pain (a derivation which Rosmarie, while translating — only while translating – finds convincing). Braude, to my amazement, pooh-poohed the idea.

“Impossible,” he said, going off to his library to consult authorities.

Over the next hour, he came up with many conjectures, one as likely as another. He appeared happy engaged in these speculations, and finally sorry to see us go.

Later that evening, Rabbi Braude calls. He calls again the next day and, at widening intervals, for several weeks. Each time it is to report that he has worked out another etymology, something else the name Jabès might mean.

Finally, I tried Hebrew Wikipedia, which said “ז’אבס (יעבץ),” and following that link led me to the Hebrew equivalent of this page: “Javitz, Javits, Jawitz, Yavetz, Yawitz, or variation, is a Jewish surname. For the Biblical sources of the name see Jacob Emden.” That last link tells us: “The acronym Ya’avetz (יעב”ץ, also written Yaavetz) stands for the words Yaakov (Emden) ben Tzvi (his father’s name, יעקב (עמדין) בן צבי).”

Can anyone make sense of this tangle?


  1. PlasticPaddy says
  2. In the Arabic WP, for “frowns” read ya`bas. Can’t find a Hebrew word of that form meaning “he furrows his brow” offhand; maybe there’s an Aramaic one? Or maybe that’s just a misunderstanding. Anyhow, they all agree on the first three letters.

  3. The surname Javetz (or Jabez/Javitz/Yavetz, etc) likely derives from one of two origins.

    a) The biblical character Jabez, as described here:


    In this case the etymology of the name is stated in the verse – it means “he makes sorrowful”, because his birth was difficult. The root is עצב – “to be sad” which by metathesis becomes יעבץ.

    I don’t see any evidence as to which origin provided the surname to the family of Edmond Jabes.

    b) Descendants of a later historical figure whose acronym was Javetz. The most famous of these was Yaakov (Jacob) Emden, the son of Tzvi:


    As mentioned there:

    The acronym Ya’avetz (יעב”ץ, also written Yaavetz) stands for the words Yaakov (Emden) ben Tzvi (his father’s name, יעקב (עמדין) בן צבי).

  4. “Impossible,”

    I know a lady who was choosing betwen names “Esau” and “Odysseus” for her first child.
    Which made me realise that Esau is a rare name:)

  5. A traditional Dictionary of Names may take at face value Hebrew Bible just-so stories of how/why various figures were given their names, but I would expect more critique from modern secular sources, even if the conclusion will sometimes favour the same gloss.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Esau is a rare name

    Something of a nomen infaustum, like “Cain” or “Ahab” or “Jezebel.” (The more so, as thanks to Lameen, I now know that the Arabic عِيسَى is not “Esau” after all.)

    It is said that the more unusual names of some of my older Welsh relatives arose from a custom of opening the Bible at random and picking the first name of appropriate sex that came out, but I suspect that there must have been some cheating.

    “‘Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.’ Right. Best of three, then?”

  7. Keith Ivey says

    I remember noticing Mahershala Ali in the credits for “Crossing Jordan”, back when he was going by Mahershalalhashbaz Ali. There was also a character named Dr Mahesh “Bug” Vijayaraghavensatyanaryanamurthy, played by Ravi Kapoor, which cemented the impression of multisyllabicity in my mind.

  8. I spent this afternoon in a New England cemetery where I saw a Bezaleel. On the one hand, there were an awful lot of Anglo and German protestants in the 17th and 18th centuries. And in the other those Old Testament genealogy verses do go on and on. I wonder how many names no dissenter ever settled on.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder, is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine.

  10. cuchuflete says

    Now, on the downslope of life, I am content in the knowledge that I no longer need a key to open the sardine can, lovely in its ovoid shape, with nary a corner to be seen. A hairy man once said…

  11. I wonder how many names no dissenter ever settled on.
    Or whether they ever combined that with the “my name is a sentence” fashion: Had-the-Lord-made-thy-father-open-another-page-thou-wouldst-not-be-Zerubbabel.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    In principle, sentences can be personal names in Kusaal, though there are not many examples. I’ve previously mentioned a man called “Atimborigya” (“The Medicine has got Lost.”) Mind you, even my Kusaasi colleagues thought that was a pretty odd name.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    How do you distinguish “name from a sentence” from “name from an epithet with verb and object”, e.g., Drinkwater? Wouldn’t the first class tend to erode over time and fall into the second class? Perhaps “Englishman who climbed up a hill and came down a mountain” (you loved the film, now see the surname) would become “Camedownmount” after several generations.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    By the presence of a subject. Kusaal does pretty freely create compounds of a noun stem and a deverbal noun, like danuur “beer-drinklng” from daam “beer” and nu “drink”, where the object precedes, but with finite verbs the language is strictly SVO.


    Tiim bɔdigya. “Medicine has got lost.”

    bɔdigya is a finite form, so tiim “medicine” must be the subject not an object. You’d also expect the noun to lose its class suffix when it’s the first element of a compound of this type: “medicine-losing” would be tibɔdigir.

    Names based on verb+object alone are (unlike those based on whole clauses) quite common, e.g. Amɔryam “Has-Intelligence”, Agɔswin “Looked at God.”

    Technically, matters are a bit more complicated: the A- seen in personal names is not confined to this one use, but can nominalise arbitrary predicates and clauses: the construction is especially favoured in proverbs. A- before a predicate effectively means “one who …”; when it precedes a subject noun, it means “one whose/for whom …” Both types appear in the proverb

    Ba wa’enɛ ana-kʋʋ-m-nua yir, ka ba pʋ wa’e anɔɔs-bɛ yirɛ.
    they go Focus A.Irrealis-kill-my-chicken house, and they Negative go A.chickens-exist house.Negative
    “People go to Will-kill-my-chicken’s house, but they don’t go to Chickens-exist’s house.”
    (i.e. rich people aren’t always generous or hospitable.)

    So Atiim-Bɔdigya is properly speaking “One for whom the medicine has got lost.”

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks. That was really interesting.

  16. In one of the Timbuktu chronicles I once came across an immigrant whose nickname was given as A si moo ŋaa “he does not eat rice”.

  17. So does anybody have any thoughts on why the name, coming as it does via Egypt, has J- and not G-? Cf. Gamal, not Jamal, in Nasser’s name.

  18. French spelling, same as the è. I suppose they could have spelled it Djabès.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    The name seems to have started out with initial [j] rather than [d͡ʒ]. So I suppose the surprise is not that it doesn’t begin with [g] but that it doesn’t begin with [j].

  20. French spelling

    But the French spell it Gamal. (For those who aren’t aware, Egyptian Arabic has g where other dialects have j.)

    DE: Never mind the ultimate etymology, if it has ج ǧīm in the existing name, it should have /g/.

  21. i wonder whether jabès’ family was in egypt when it got that surname. a “prominent Jewish family in Egypt going back to the 19th century” (wikipedia) could’ve been in the nile valley for a millennium, or since 1492, or 1517, or 1798, or anything inbetween. i don’t see a lot of reason to think that the name would have a specifically egyptian pronunciation.

    but even if it did, and we imagine the current pronunciation to be partly roman-letter eye-dialect, a prominent 19thC jewish family in egypt could have all kinds of reasons (related or unrelated to its history; related or unrelated to various european spelling conventions or/and registers of arabic) for settling on one transliteration rather than another. but they likely would have needed to actively pick one, since “prominent” almost certainly implies economic or political ties that would involve dealing with non-arabic-speaking/writing europeans.

  22. i don’t see a lot of reason to think that the name would have a specifically egyptian pronunciation.

    I mean, how else could Egyptians pronounce it? It’s not a choice, it’s the phoneme they have. The Wikipedia article says “a prominent Jewish family in Egypt going back to the 19th century,” so by Edmond’s time there wouldn’t have been any other way to say it. It’s not a matter of “settling on one transliteration rather than another.” I mean, sure, if there’s a bunch of Jabès relatives in, say, Lebanon who spell it that way, then it would make sense to use the same form regardless of local pronunciation, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m wondering about. Without such an explanation, it stands out like a sore thumb. Egyptian names with /g/ are normally rendered with g in transliteration.

  23. FWIW, Hebrew WP says Jabès was of Sephardic Italian origin; Arabic ditto says his family came from the northern Balkans.

  24. After a bit of hunting around, I’m pretty sure the Arabic spelling of the name is based on the Latin one, not vice versa; his father’s line only reached Egypt in the early 19th c. (L’écrivain Edmond Jabès au Caire). The spelling Jabès for the Biblical name seems to have been abandoned in modern French Bible translations, but it was widespread in the 18th/19th century. His grandfather Haim Jabes seems to have reached Cairo from Livorno, and his family name was already spelled with a j in Italian by 1827. I imagine it would still have been pronounced with a semivowel at that stage, but once the Alliance Française got their hands on him they would surely have put a stop to that.

  25. Ah, that makes perfect sense. Thank you, I will be able to sleep tonight!

  26. ktschwarz says

    There is an Egyptian Arabic Wikipedia, which uses ج ǧīm to spell non-Arab names pronounced with [ʒ] or [dʒ]: ادمون جابيس (Edmond Jabès), جورج حنين (Georges Henein, another Cairo-born francophone writer), جيمس جويس (James Joyce).

  27. Lameen, If I am not mistaken, that newspaper merely announces that Haim Jabes, of Egypt, had just arrived in Torino from Livorno (perhaps on a business trip?) Genoa would be a closer port but perhaps he had other stops.

  28. Y: looking more closely, you may be right. Another source says it was Haim Jabes’ father that migrated to Egypt, not Haim himself, and, while the family is widely reported to have come from Italy, I can’t find any confirmation of which town.

  29. how else could Egyptians pronounce it?

    as a “foreign” name, or an idiosyncratic one, learned by ear – or with /g/, if they haven’t heard it said aloud first. it’s not unusual for that kind of non-assimilation to last generations, even centuries. a close u.s. parallel (sticking to the 19thC timeframe) could be texas german “j-” surnames that haven’t shifted to eye-dialect pronunciations (wikipedia tells me there’s a current Rangers 3rd baseman from san antonio named joshua jung with contrasting realizations of his “j”s – i expect they’re said the same sometimes, but not by anyone who follows the game).

  30. ktschwarz says

    The term you’re looking for is spelling pronunciation, not eye dialect, which is something different. (It confused me for a minute, so I checked.)

    Non-assimilation of a name’s spelling does seem very plausible. Also, wouldn’t contracts and business documents have been written in Standard Arabic, even in Cairo? (Isn’t that still true today?) Perhaps in that context they spelled the name according to Standard Arabic, where the letter ǧīm would be pronounced [d͡ʒ]. Or was commerce and banking conducted more in French, or English, at that time?

  31. argh – thanks for the correction, ktschwartz! typing fast, not rechecking my phrasings over here. apologies!

  32. Perhaps in that context they spelled the name according to Standard Arabic, where the letter ǧīm would be pronounced [d͡ʒ].

    I would have thought that was as unlikely as an American reading Scots names with Scots phonemes. I assumed that when Egyptians see ǧīm they say /g/, end of story. But I am no expert in Egyptian habits of language.

  33. To my knowledge Egyptian Arabic has a fairly established loan phoneme /ʒ/ (pronounced as a fricative like in neighboring Levantine, not an affricate) for foreign /dʒ/~/ʒ/; it can be written with a special letter چ, but more often with an undistinguished ج.

  34. Oh, so it’s like /g/ in Ukrainian. Thanks!

  35. I think yes, jintil “gentle”. Cf. WP. This does not mean that when Egyptians (those of them who have g-reflex) see Jim in a name of an Arabic speaker they will say anything but g. (Or that absolutely no one will say “gosh” if you’re a Josh. Also (in Russian)

  36. David Marjanović says


  37. In Wuthering Heights, our narrator reads from a book with the wonderful title “Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy-First. A Pious Discourse delivered by the Reverend Jabez Branderham, in the Chapel of Gimmerden Sough”.

    I always remember Jabez Branderham as he appears in a dream, notable for me as being the only dream scene in all of literature that I don’t hate.

  38. Also the hapless Jabez Wilson, Sherlock Holmes’s client in The Red-Headed League.

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