Word of the Day Galash: Thy Hair Reminds Me of a Jumping Goat Boiled at Dawn?

How this mysterious verb morphed from goats looking mighty fine (evidently) to the Information Highway.

Goat (Dreamstime.com)
Thy hair reminds me of goat doing ski?Dreamstime.com

Few biblical words have received more contradictory interpretation than the verb galash, which in modern Hebrew means to surf (as in waves or the web). But it definitely didn’t mean either in the Bible, where it appears twice, in a simile in the Song of Songs: “Thy hair is as a flock of goats, that galshu from Mount Gilead.” (4:1)

The King James translators rendered "galshu" (a past plural of "galash") as "appeared," but in fact there's no agreement what the verb meant, though whatever the goats were doing - we can be quite certain it wasn’t surfing.

The earliest translation, the Septuagint to Greek, has the goats "going up the hill." Centuries later the Jewish scholar Rashi wrote in his commentary of the passage that G-L-SH is an Aramaic root denoting bald heads. That is technically true but doesn’t seem to be helpful in this passage.

Another meaning of the same Aramaic root is "boiling over". Some have tried to use this meaning to explain the passage as well - as if the goats are boiling over the hill, though this tortuous mix of metaphors seems highly unlikely.

But why limit ourselves to Aramaic? Perhaps some other language can shed light on this mysterious verb. Abraham Ibn Ezra thought so too, and suggested that the root is a variant of the Arabic root Gh-L-Sh, which denotes "dawn." Thus according to Ibn Ezra, the lover's hair is being compared to early-rising goats.

Another possibility is that the verb is Egyptian in origin - from the ancient Egyptian verb K-P-SHU, which meant to jump, so possibly the poet meant jumping goats. We just don’t know.

Israelis on skis

During later generations, Jews used the verb galash as in the Aramaic, together with its myriad of meanings - boiling, baldness, and stacking of piles, but during the Middle Ages, this verb became less and less common.

It was only in the early 20th century that the verb started to re-emerge, but not as used by earlier generations based on the Aramaic, but rather by reinterpreting the simile in the Song of Songs – to mean "flowing hair," and the descent from hills to valleys.

Yet not even this rather more sensible rendition was to endure.

In the 1930s people began using galash for a special kind of descent. This happened due to the influence of the Yiddish word gleetch, which means to slip. Thus the Yiddish "slipping" and the Hebrew "downhill" merged into a single verb, liglosh, meaning "to ski."

By the way, the Yiddish word gleetch may have entered English as well. It might be the source of the English word glitch, which came into use in astronaut lingo, during Project Mercury, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

It is true that none of the astronauts spoke any Yiddish. But perhaps one of the engineers or technicians brought the gleetch from his Jewish mother’s kitchen to NASA and from there to the whole English-speaking world. Maybe.

Meanwhile, while Americans were exploring space, in Israel surfing began to gain in popularity. While in the 1940s the word galshan was used for "skier", by the 1960s this was the word for a "surfboard." And since Israel has very few snowy mountains – well, one, Mount Hermon - and many sunny beaches, people used the verb galash more and more to describe surfing and less and less to describe skiing. Skiing is now usually referred to in Hebrew as “laasot ski” (“To do skiing”).

But surfing the sea wouldn’t dominate the verb galash for long. In 1992, the librarian Jean Polly was looking for a metaphor to use as a title of her article on Internet use for the Wilson Library Bulletin. She eventually got the idea from her mousepad, which read "Information Surfer." Polly’s article, “Surfing the Internet,” was a great success and was distributed heavily among early Internet users. It was this article that got English speakers to use surf as the verb for using the Internet.

Since at least 1997, this verb was translated to Hebrew as galash and is used to this day to denote Internet use in Hebrew. So there you have it - from ancient goats on Mount Gilead to the information highway.