Word of the Day Rakevet - Steam Machine on Iron Tracks

When a train first steamed into Jerusalem, in 1892, a local newspaper reported on the arrival of a 'steam machine on iron tracks.’ It became clear to everybody that a pithier term was required.

The Hebrew word for train is rakevet (ra-KE-vet) and like many of the Hebrew words for modern-day inventions it was coined by the famed lexicographer and publisher Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

The train from Jaffa to Jerusalem was inaugurated on September 26, 1892. This was an exciting event in the lives of Jerusalemites and naturally made front page in its newspapers. One of these was Ben-Yehuda’s “HaOr”.

“The steam arrived!” the paper read. “On Sunday, the steam machine on iron tracks came to the City of David and Solomon and all our city’s residents - big and small - went out to greet this dear visitor with unbound joy and friendship, because all feel that the whistle of the steam machine is the herald of the Enlightenment, it brings the news of new life, life of labor, life of progress, a fast life, strong, fueled by the power of steam.”

You probably notice that the word train didn’t appear anywhere in the above passage. That is because Hebrew didn’t have a word for train yet. Instead, Ben Yehuda uses the word “kitor” (ki-TOR), steam.

This would change two weeks later, when Ben Yehuda published a letter to the editor written by the Hebrew teacher David Yellin. In his letter, Yellin suggested that the word katar (ka-TAR) be adopted for the train’s engine based on the Arabic word katar originally meaning caravan of camels but, with the advent of the locomotive in the Middle East, was adopted to mean "train".

“I was surprised to see that his honor uses the word ‘steam’ for machines that ride iron tracks, a name predicated only on the smoke rising from the burning of combustible materials, or the steam that rises from liquids, and not on the machine that emits it,” Yellin wrote. “The Arabs had done better in using the word kat-ar, which in Hebrew would be ka-tar. This name is more correct in Hebrew, too, for a machine that emits a lot of steam. I hope that you agree and proceed to use this word in your paper.”

“We had borrowed the word ‘steam’ to mean also the group of carriages pulled by the machine because we couldn’t find a better name, despite the fact that we knew that the name wasn’t good,” responded Ben Yehuda. “The wise Rabbi Y.M. Pines suggested a word be constructed on the basis of the Talmudic words ‘khameret’ and ‘gamelet’...which mean caravan of donkeys (kha-MOR) and caravan of camels (ga-MAL) and using the word “agala” (carriage) to conceive the word ‘agelet,’” he continued. “But perhaps rakevet is better, being a caravan of ‘rekhev,’ of vehicles.”

From then on, in his newspapers Ben-Yehuda used the word “rakevet” for train and the word “katar” for the train’s engine. And from his papers these words spread to other newspapers and throughout the growing Hebrew public.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.