Monday, January 21, 2013

Hebrew etymologies for English words?

This is a popular exercise in kiruv circles, to show a bunch of English or foreign language words and "show" that they came from Hebrew, thus demonstrating the historicity of the Tower of Bavel incident in sefer Bereishit. However, while some words do ultimately derive from Hebrew, in other cases, Hebrew (both Biblical and Mishnaic) borrowed words from other languages. In other instances, such etymological proofs rely on the present surface form of the word, and its similarity to a Hebrew form, ignoring that the surface form of the word was different in the past. These are what are called "false cognates". They have the same form and the same meaning, more or less, but they derive from different sources.

Here I'll analyze a post that gives some awful etymologies, to "prove" a connection between Hebrew and English words.
English dictionaries trace words back to Latin. But they go no further.
It only makes sense most languages, including Latin derivatives, derive from the first universal language ever spoken, Biblical Hebrew. The Torah explicitly tells us that until the Tower of Babylon story, the world's populace spoke - only Hebrew (Braishis 11:1). 
Here are some English words that most probably have their source in Hebrew: 
More examples:
"שרף" means "Serpent"(Devarim 8, 15).
Speaking of snakes,
"פתן" is "Python"  (Tehilim 91:13).

"מסתר"(as in Rashi: Shir Hashirim 1:2) means "Mystery"
a noun from the root verb "to conceal".

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh (lecture in 2005) says the word MURDER comes from 2 Hebrew words:
"Mered Or" (מרד אור), meaning - Rebellion Against Light [as in Iyov 24, 13]. Light connotes G-d, and murder is rebelling against Him Who created all people to live.

Probably Hashem mixed up the universal language of Hebrew into 70 different languages at the Tower of Babel; The "mix-up" probably kept the original language as a sort of "parent" to the derived words; But that is my guess.
Let us consider the non-Biblical Hebrew word "Parnas", which matches "Furnish". We are meant to think that P=F, R=R, and S=Sh. However, let us now trace the form and meaning of "Furnish" back in time...

The etymology of Furnish is:

furnish (v.) Look up furnish at
mid-15c., from Middle French furniss-, prp. stem of furnir "furnish, accomplish," from Old French fornir (12c.), from Vulgar Latin *fornire, alteration of *fromire, from West Germanic *frumjan "forward movement, advancement" (cf. Old High German frumjan "to do, execute, provide"), from P.Gmc. *fram- "forwards" (see from). Meaning "to provide" (something) is from 1520s.
That is, go back far enough, to when it supposedly branched off from Hebrew, and we will see that the "sh" ending disappears. So we can no longer match the -sh ending of Furnish to the -s ending of Parnas. Furthermore, the n was not originally an n, but rather an m. Maybe that m is from an initial n, but the surface similarity is no longer compelling. Furthermore, we see that "furnish" initially comes for the P.Gmc word "fram", meaning "forwards". Further, the purported Hebrew etymology did not even consider that the -ish ending was morphology, rather than root. Compare to the words polish and brandish.

Finally, the word "furnish" did not always mean "to provide". It only had that meaning from the 1520s, which was much later than the tower of Bavel. So Parnas / Furnish does not historically match in form nor meaning.

Most targets of this kiruv argument are not sophisticated enough to spot the obvious error. Indeed, most proponents of this kiruv argument are not sophisticated enough to spot that they are making an error.

Consider "Suit" vs. "Suto". S=S and T=T. However, here is the etymology:

suit (n.) Look up suit at
c.1300, "attendance at court, the company attending," also their livery or uniform, via Anglo-French siwte, from Old French suitte "attendance, act of following," from Gallo-Romance *sequita, fem. of *sequitus, from Latin secutus, pp. of sequi "to attend, follow" (see sequel). Meaning "application to a court for justice, lawsuit" is first recorded early 15c. Meaning "set of clothes to be worn together" is attested from early 15c., from notion of the livery or uniform of court attendants (a sense recorded from late 13c.).
Trace it as far back as Latin, and you have an extra letter c or q in the middle. And possibly that t disappears as well. The surface forms no longer match.

Furthermore, the meaning of "a set of clothes to be worn together" traces back to the 15th century, or maybe to the 13th century. Earlier than that, it does not mean clothes. It means "to attend, follow". So the meanings no longer match.

Let us try Murder=Mered Or. Nice kabbalistic / mystical etymology. It also is incredibly unlikely.  MER or MORT as death exists separately. The true etymology is:

murder (n.) Look up murder at
c.1300, murdre, from Old English morðor (plural morþras) "secret killing of a person, unlawful killing," also "mortal sin, crime; punishment, torment, misery," from P.Gmc. *murthra- (cf. Goth maurþr, and, from a variant form of the same root, Old Saxon morth, Old Frisian morth, Old Norse morð, Middle Dutch moort, Dutch moord, German Mord "murder"), from PIE *mrtro-, from root *mer- "to die" (see mortal (adj.)). The spelling with -d- probably reflects influence of Anglo-French murdre, from Old French mordre, from Medieval Latin murdrum, from the Germanic root.

Viking custom, typical of Germanic, distinguished morð (Old Norse) "secret slaughter," from vig (Old Norse) "slaying." The former involved concealment, or slaying a man by night or when asleep, and was a heinous crime. The latter was not a disgrace, if the killer acknowledged his deed, but he was subject to vengeance or demand for compensation.
Mordre wol out that se we day by day. [Chaucer, "Nun's Priest's Tale," c.1386]
Weakened sense of "very unpleasant situation" is from 1878.
murder (v.) Look up murder at
Old English myrðrian, from P.Gmc. *murthjan (cf. Old High German murdran, German mördren, Gothic maurþjan; see murder (n.)). Related: Murderedmurdering.
This Hebrew derivation is just someone making an etymology up, and people are too polite or ignorant to point out that this is just making things up.

How about the non-Biblical Hebrew Payeis, with English Appease? P=P, S=S. However, here is the etymology:

appease (v.) Look up appease at
c.1300 "to reconcile," from Anglo-French apeser, Old French apaisier "to pacify, make peace, appease, be reconciled, placate" (12c.), from the phrase a paisier "bring to peace," from a "to" (see ad-) + pais, from Latin pacem (nom. pax) "peace" (see peace).
That is, it has the meaning to reconcile as far back as the 12th century, based on the Old French. But that is from a phrase a paisier, "to bring peace". The French word pais does not mean reconcile but peace, and comes from Latin pacem. So, back in Latin, it does not have the same meaning of reconciling or placating.

Words take many forms and meanings over the years. And it is an error to assume that the surface form and meaning of a modern English word was the same as it was way back when the purported borrowing occurred. Rather, due to the shifts in meaning and form, by mere accident, two words in parallel languages might readily form a false cognate.


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

There's a more obvious counterargument. The Torah says God completely confused their languages. That means no common ancestor language using standard entymology techniques. Saying that Hebrew roots survived into modern English would go against this.

S. said...

And the counter argument to that is the Semitic family of languages, and its many cognates.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

As a linguist and an educator, nonsense "etymologies" like these drive me crazy. Interestingly enough, it also works in the opposite direction -- I had an Ulpan teacher in Israel tell us that the Hebrew verb לפייס, to appease, was actually a borrowing from English "peace"! I knew that didn't sound right, but it only hit me the next time I said Taḥanun מתרצה ברחמים ומתפייס בתחנונים that I had proof right in front of me that the Hebrew verb completely antedated the entire English language.

Anonymous said...

You left out the obvious that "lev" means "heart", not "love"

joshwaxman said...


i think they know that, but were connecting heart and love, because of the cultural belief that the heart is the seat of emotion. (rather than the common theme in Chazal that the heart is the seat of the intellect.)

there is no way of disproving this false cognate merely via the changed form of the word, since the form is somewhat similar even going back: Old English lufu "love, affection, friendliness," from P.Gmc. *lubo (cf. Old High German liubi "joy," German Liebe "love;" Old Norse, Old Frisian, Dutch lof; German Lob "praise;" Old Saxon liof, Old Frisian liaf, Dutch lief, Old High German liob, German lieb, Gothic liufs "dear, beloved").

i agree that it is a false cognate, but wasn't going to **prove** it here.

Mike S. said...

But the "paradise" and "pardes" are really etymologically related, even though the source is not Hebrew. It gets to both English and Hebrew from Persian.

Yochanan said...

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg),

As a BT who majored in Linguistics, the "etymologies" also drive me crazy.

in the vanguard said...

The very least, you could have done, Josh, is provide a link to my article. You can take issue with me, but why not do it in gentlemanly fashion?

joshwaxman said...

The link was there, but you just missed it. It is on the words "Hebrew and English words".

kol tuv,

Pragmatician said...

In Dutch we find an uncanny amount of words (perhaps not always commonly used) that sounds like hebrewish words. Interesting.

in the vanguard said...

Josh - using a DICTIONARY that goes back to Latin is not good enough to decide that Rabbi Ginsburgh's conclusion is "unlikely". Just say, if you want to, "I trust the Webster's rabbis more than that Rabbi". You printed everything I never wanted to print becaus eI felt my source had deeper sources than the goyim (I know what you'll say - goyim are smart - so believe THEM).

Then there's MikeS who says Pardes isn't Hebrew. Go tell King Solomon that crap. See my source for the word. But he too has a "command" of Biblical etymology.

Then another pundit of your readership says Lev is heart - not love. I wish I could draw for him a love heart. Another splitter of hairs he is. As if languages extend to others by exact meanings without any nuances allowed. If he ever heard Mexican music, every song they play has the affectionate "mi corazon" - which literally means "my heart" but really means "my love".

Which is why two words that turn to one also is no disqualification, except to one who wants to forcefully prove his case.

As for Mighty Ironheart's comment, on "completely confused" (where did he get that COMPLETELY from anyhow), Rashi's example was he asked for X and was given Y. But at least they got the delivery part of the request correct. The guy could have come over and kissed him instead.

Maybe one or two of my list, maybe, I'm wrong about, but not because I see here, by you, any disproof. I just figured this to be the case as I study Torah. You too, only nitpick one or two of my list, and only by assumption, just as I too assumed - for proof is hardly available. So I ask you, why project a certainty, why the highfalutin "false cognate" stuff.

Another thing. Rashi tells us Adam spoke Hebrew. Chances are his wife and children spoke it. They'd have no reason to changes languages. Then, in a generation not too far away, in the Tower story, the Torah says they ALL spoke ONE language. Why in the world not assume that Hebrew was therefore the pervasive language?

As to the mixing up of languages, that means, suddenly, people began understanding only some others but not all others. In this way Hashem segmented them. This miracle - we can safely presume - based on other ways Hashem projects from all aspects of creation, that it all still maintains ties to Torah - "the blueprint of the universe".

Purim sameach you all!

joshwaxman said...

I could write a long comment explaining why you are wrong, but what is the point? There is zero chance you would understand and accept it.

have a happy purim,

in the vanguard said...

I must say I find it reprehensible that you can take something I created, for my own blog, and use it by incorporating it into your post on your own blog, without at least providing me with the courtesy of attribution.

Would it have been too hard on you to say where you got the chart (that I created) and provide the link to my blog, Hezbos.blogspot dot com.

To add insult to injury, you do not even have me among your list of feeds. You can rectify my resentment by adding my blog to that list, and by delineating my actual narrative from the prose you added to it.

in the vanguard said...

My mistake - I see you DID, in fact, provide the link.

joshwaxman said...

indeed, and we discussed this very point a bit more than a year ago, in this very comment section. (Feb 19, 2013)

probably you also were looking on a smartphone. your actual narrative is in an indented blockquote.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...

You asserted:
"Rather, due to the shifts in meaning and form, by mere accident, two words in parallel languages might readily form a false cognate."

That's more far-fetched than the author's conjecture based on both sound, as well as meaning of the word, as, for example, to appease -- לפייס, or to Furnish, and yes, maybe too the "suit".

There's no such thing as "by mere accident", certainly not as a general rule!

You attacked the author on 3 words, but hardly dislodged his idea that SOME English words have their root in Hebrew. As for the Hebrew language having been thrown into confusion, doesn't mean every words now meant something else, like one commenter pundits. You suffer from cognitive dissonance, but not because that author was so wrong, but rather your lame-brained counter findings.

joshwaxman said...

I answered this already in the main body of the post, but perhaps you missed it.

The author's conjecture is indeed more far-fetched, because while you try to say that there is a match based on both sound and meaning, that is not so. NOWADAYS the sound and the meaning match the Hebrew. But BACK THEN, the sound and/or the meaning did not match.

Unless you address this actual point, accusations and insults about cognitive dissonance of having a lame brain seem weak.


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