Strength and Adoption.

The latest post at Balashon focuses on the odd semantic development of the Hebrew אימוץ imutz ‘adoption’ from the root אמץ, meaning ‘to be strong.’ (The post starts with a purported derivation of Amazon from that root, which I don’t believe for one second.) The discussion of the history is very interesting, and I commend the whole post to your attention, but what I’m bringing here is this section near the end:

Ultimately, the meaning of the verb אמץ is unclear in these verses (and the Daat Mikra, for example on Yeshaya 44:14, offers both “to strengthen” and “to set aside.”) But one thing is clear – these verses weren’t followed up with uses of אמץ to mean the adoption of a child in the remainder of Biblical literature, or any of Talmudic literature. In fact, a search of the Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language shows the first clear example of that usage in an 1873 essay (page 143 and page 144) by the writer Peretz Smolenskin. And even following that, it wasn’t a very popular usage. For example, see the results of this Google Books Ngram Viewer search. I looked for the word אימוץ, which as a gerund wouldn’t be used for much else other than adoption. It only really picks up in the 1950s, growing to a much higher usage in the last twenty years.

So what happened here? I think this is an example of a phenomenon we’ve discussed many times before on Balashon. I don’t know the technical name of the linguistic phenomenon (but I have a feeling a reader will enlighten me in the comments), but what happens frequently in Hebrew when there are two synonyms is that one will become the popular one for common usage and the other will take on a different meaning. This new meaning will generally fill in a semantic gap, becoming the word for a concept previously without a good word as a fit. (This is part of the process called semantic change, but I don’t think it’s exactly semantic narrowing, since the new meaning isn’t necessarily less general than the earlier meaning – just different.) We saw it with etz and ilan, with atar and makom, with tzedek and tzedaka, and now with chizek and imetz. Hebrew today doesn’t really need two words for “strengthen.” So when a writer like Smolenskin borrows from a verse in Tehillim and turns imetz into adopt (a child), then the speakers will, well, adopt the usage with open arms. (Yes, the meaning of imetz has since expanded to mean adopting of any practice or idea.)

So: any thoughts on what this process is or should be called? (Or, of course, on the etymologies involved.)


  1. looking forward to reading the whole post (not gonna happen in my day today), but wondering how many of these diverging doublets are a result of semantic divergence in ordinary linguistic evolution, and how many are deliberate semantic engineering in the course of the invention of ivrit. tzedek/tzedaka seems clearly the former, and amitz/imutz the latter. seems to me like they’re two quite different processes, that deserve two different terms.

  2. Good point.

  3. January First-of-May says

    and how many are deliberate semantic engineering in the course of the invention of ivrit

    AFAIK Modern Hebrew is far from the only language where (nearly) obsolete archaic words get pushed into use for vaguely related new concepts; it’s just (possibly) the only one where this is the main method of formation of words for new concepts.

    (One example that comes to mind is Russian вратарь “goalkeeper”, originally a very old word for “gate guard” – so old that its suffix is essentially unproductive in modern Russian.)

  4. David L. Gold says

    @January First-of-May “[Israeli Hebrew is} the only one where this is the main method of formation of words for new concepts.”

    What is the evidence that that is the main method in Israeli Hebrew?

  5. I recently complained about krateroma, the modern official Greek word for bronze – but I think I did not send the post.. WP says it is “rare” in ancient writers and gives a reference to Hesychius. Hesychius has everything. My example of a Persian word borrowed to Russian and back to Persian (other than [do]stakan and maybe some more) was sarafan, and its possible Persian etymon is in Hesychius. I suspect some modern Greek just wanted to expel brú[n]dzos.

  6. Huh, that must be fairly recent — my dictionaries only have μπρούντζος.

  7. Well, then I am less sure. I assumed that (1) an “official name” exists (2) used in the name of the WP page:Κρατέρωμα

    -арь: вискарь, стопарь, косарь (as in “a slang word for 1000 units of some currency”, not “a guy who mows grass or crops”) The suffix is productive in slang. I think languages tend to accumulate such noun suffixes.

  8. Well, my dictionaries are from the last century, so take them with a grain of salt.

  9. the main method of formation of words for new concepts

    Repurposing old words was certainly used a lot by Ben Yehuda, who need to get a lot of words, quickly. After him, not very much, and these days, hardly at all.

  10. words get pushed into use for vaguely related new concepts


    Based on síma (“cord”).

    IPA(key): /ˈsiːmɪ/
    Rhymes: -iːmɪ
    sími m (genitive singular síma, nominative plural símar)

    1. telephone
    2. (biology) axon

    +some clever manipulation:


    A neologism derived from tæki (“a tool”) +‎ -ni (nominal suffix). Phono-semantic matching of Danish teknik. Coined by Dr. Björn Bjarnarson from Viðfjörður in 1912.

    IPA(key): /ˈtʰaihkn̥ɪ/

    tækni f (genitive singular tækni, no plural)

    1. technology
    2. technique

  11. @Y:

    what’s interesting to me about אימוץ is partly that while the technical coinage is in the ‘ben yehuda period’ of language invention, Balashon’s ngram search indicates that the word was basically unused until the 1930s, and really took off after 1950.

    which makes sense both for ivrit in general (the enforcement of ivrit onto a much larger population during that decade) and for the particular word (both the substantial amount of actual adoption of child survivors and ‘adoption’ as the euphemism for child-theft from yemeni and other mizrahi communities).

    but it also, i think, complicates the idea of this kind of coinage as an anomaly of the ‘ben yehuda period’ that fades out as ivrit acquires a critical mass of cradle-tongue speakers. if a word only exists on paper for 75 years, it’s hardly a living part of the language – to my eye, it makes more sense to think of אימוץ as a mid-20thC word than a late-19thC one (without denying smolenskin his laurels as the technical coiner), and of the process it illustrates as active, rather than historical.

  12. David L. Gold says

    @ Y. “Repurposing old words was certainly used a lot by Ben Yehuda.”

    Yes, I indeed had REpurposing in mind — existing words with new meanings (such as musach ‘garage’, whether or not he was the repurposer).

    Can you give some examples of existing words that he repurposed?

  13. I was going to say פְּסַנְתֵּר psanter ‘piano’ (originally a harp of some sort, from the Greek), but it turns out that was due to pianist Berta Feinberg, not to BY (who invented מַכּוֹשִׁית makoshit instead).
    Ben Yehuda did, however, repurpose BH אֶקְדָּח ’eqdāḥ, the word for a precious stone, to mean ‘pistol’; and תַּשְׁבֵּץ tašbēṣ, meaning a checkered kind of cloth, as ‘crossword puzzle’.

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