Word of the Day Seret: Frankly, My Dear, I Do Give a Damn How to Say 'Movie' in Ancient Hebrew

Hebrew revival purists couldn't stand proto-Israelis using 'film' for 'movie,' and found the perfect word in the Mishnah.

Gone with the Wind, 1939.
Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind," 1939, origin of most-quoted movie line ever - "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."AP

The Hebrew word for movie is SE-ret. As you may have guessed, it is quite a modern word - but its sources lie far in the past.

We first encounter the Hebrew word seret in the Mishnah, where we learn that one should never “tie a seret of cotton with that of linen to bind one’s waist.” (Kelayim 9:9). At this point, seret means "a strip of fabric." Arabic has a similar word meaning “tape.”

The Arabic and the Hebrew words may both derive from the Greek word sirtis, which means “bolt” (as in locking the door). Or it could be of some other unknown source.

At any rate, this word didn’t get much play after the time of the Mishnah, and when it did, it was usually in reference to this rule in the Mishnah, or to pieces of fabric used to tie things more generally.

This all-but forgotten word was lifted out from obscurity by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language, in 1892. For his weekly publication “HaOr,” translating a story about the Roman wars against the Jews written by the German author Heinrich Vollrath Schumacher, he needed a word for the sash worn by Roman senators. Ben-Yehuda wrote, describing the attire of a Roman noble: “…dressed in finery and a purple seret running across his shoulder.”

As Ben-Yehuda figured nobody would understand his use of seret to mean the "sash Roman senators wore to mark their status," he wrote in a footnote that a seret was “a piece of long and thin clothing, like a strap.״

Following this and later uses in his publications, the word entered Hebrew and came to refer to all ribbons.

This could have been the end of the line for seret, especially as "movie" had come to be called film, often pronounced FILL-em.

But purist Hebrew writers in the mid-1920s became fed up with using the non-Hebraic word for movies and sought a true Hebrew translation. Seret was chosen because it was so apt in describing the rolls of celluloid in which movies came, which look like ribbons. The decision was also possibly influenced by the fact that Arabic had used serit sinemahi for film.

The earliest reference I could find of the word seret being used to mean "movie" was in 1925, in an article in the newspaper Davar titled “Shalom Aleichem in Film.”

The headline used the word film - but in the article itself, about the adaptation of the Yiddish author's stories to the silver screen, the word seret was used throughout. And thus Hebrew got its truly Hebraic (or maybe Greek) word for movie.