Word of the Day / Bira: How 'Capital City' and 'Beer' Came to Be the Same

Which doesn't mean experts necessarily agree on where the action in the Book of Esther took place.

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The city of Wellington bills itself as being the “craft beer capital” of New Zealand, as well as being the actual, you know, capital capital.

It could be that New Zealanders have sussed out one of the Hebrew language’s most providential coincidences: the words for “capital” (the city kind) and “beer” are one and the same.

Since both are bira, pronunciation is key. If you want to know how to get to Jerusalem, you need to ask about the bee-RA. If you just want a beer, you need to hop on over to the first syllable and call it BEE-ra.

It’s no coincidence that the kind of bira that can be bottled sounds like the English “beer” and the German bier, both of which the Even-Shoshan dictionary cites as antecedents of the (He)brew word.

The less yeasty kind of bira, on the other hand, comes from the Akkadian birtu, meaning “fortified city.”

The main action of the Book of Esther takes place in what is described as Shushan habira, which is often understood to mean the capital city - but which some Torah commentators and linguists say was actually the fortified castle within the capital.

Linguist Abba Bendavid writes that Shushan was split into two parts: the city and the bira. “The king’s fortress and its surroundings are called ‘Shushan habira,’ and the rest of the city is called ‘the city Shushan,’” he writes. The same point was made by Torah commentator Rabbi Behaye in the 14th century.

The term ir bira to mean “capital city” appears to have been the result of the common interpretation of “Shushan habira” as “capital,” according to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. This makes sense, since the city in which the king lived was indeed the capital city.

It kind of makes you wonder what linguists in the next century will think when they find ads promoting a festival sponsored by Israeli beer maker Goldstar, in which Haifa is touted as (what else?) the ir haBEEra.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Physicists celebrating the achievements of the CERN particle accelerator, with a glass of beer.Credit: Reuters

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