Word of the Day / Akhbarosh and Khulda: How Hebrew Wound Up With Two Wrong Words for Rat

A zoologist collecting butterflies for the sultan decides the bible, and locals, have their rodents all wrong. Then Yiddish became involved.

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These are rats, which have two names in modern Hebrew - neither of which originally meant rat.Credit: AP

Modern Hebrew has two different words for the common rat - akh-bar-ROSH and khul-DA.

This is perhaps surprising, since just a hundred years ago, there were none - and neither mean rat anyway. At least, they didn't originally.

Until the advent of the duo for the despised rodent, Hebrew made do with a single word - akhbar – for both mice and rats. That's because either nobody noticed, or cared, that they are different species. It took the migration of a scientifically trained zoologist to Palestine, in the early 20th century, to rectify the oversight.

Israel Aharoni was born in the Russian Empire, in an area which is today Lithuania. He was a son of a rabbi, who died before his birth; his mother died soon after. The rest of his short childhood he spent at his grandmother’s house, where he received a religious education at a heder. He ran away from home at age 13, to Prague, he graduated from school there, and went to university, where he studied Zoology and Semitic Philology.

This is where he began to become involved in Zionism, and murine nomenclature. Upon graduating at the turn of the 20th century, he immigrated to Palestine, then under Ottoman control, where he started his career collecting butterflies for a local sultan.

The coming of the mole rat

In addition to teaching in Hebrew schools and seeking out unknown species (he discovered 30 in his lifetime), Aharoni tried to figure out which animal names appearing in the Bible, Mishnah and Talmud corresponded to which animals living in his new home and apply the correct original name to them. His efforts left a lasting mark on Hebrew to this day, including on the name of the rat.

Looking to differentiate between the common mouse and the larger rat, he looked in the Bible and found: ״These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind” (Leviticus 11:29).

The first animal on this list, that which the King James Bible rendered “weasel,” is a kholed in the original Hebrew. In an article published in 1944, Aharoni argued that the kholed was the Palestine mole rat (the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem has an exhibit of the naked mole rat, if you're curious).

It seems Aharoni had it wrong – the evidence points to kholed being a collective name for small carnivorous mammals, including weasels, martens, polecats,  mongooses, and possibly cats too. But his designation was accepted by the Hebrew Academy.

This brings us to Hulda, the biblical prophetess, whose name is pronounced
khul-DA. Her name likely also referred to these smart, quick animals. Even so, in 1923 Aharoni suggested that khulda be used to refer to the common rats that he found in Palestine. Thus the name entered common use and was made official by the academy in 1964, leading subsequent generations of schoolchildren to fruitlessly wonder why this lady prophet was named for a rat.

Anyway, Hebrew now has two names for the rat, of which we've discussed one. Khulda found itself competing with the synonym akhbarosh. This word arose as a loan from Yiddish, which itself borrowed from the German word Mausekopf, literally "mouse head" – but meaning scam artist.

And indeed, this is how the word was used in Hebrew in the early 20th century. But by the 1930s, the brown rat spread throughout Israel (after its accidental introduction to the environment in the late 18th century; Israel was already blessed with the common rat). People had forgotten the original meaning of the word akhbarosh, and applied it to the enormous new rats infesting their homes. Though colloquial, this word is widely used to this day.

These are "mice," not "rats," as zoological purists would know, even if nobody else cares.Credit: Dreamstime.com

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