Word of the Day / Boreg: How Hebrew Finally Wound Up With a Word for Screw After Much Dispute

Attempts to find a word began with Arabic and German, but ultimately both Arabic and Hebrew wound up borrowing from Turkish.

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Nobody remembers any more who invented the fastening device known in English as a screw, and in Hebrew as boreg. It is first known from the Middle Ages, and probably originated in the Arab world, which was more technologically advanced at the time. As a new invention, it needed to be named. The Arabs called the thing "lawlab" from the root l-l-b, which means spiral.

Hebrew writers during the Middle Ages adapted the Arabic word to Hebrew, creating the word lulav, which observant Jews would immediately identify as something else completely – the ritualistic palm fronds used in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Most probably, in earlier times, the lulav was a staff with a vine wrapped around it, and this was changed during the religious reforms of the Hasmonean Dynasty.

Back to the screw. In modern Hebrew, the word went through many a metamorphosis.

When David Frishman translated Aaron Bernstein’s popular science books from the German in the late 19th century, he created a new Hebrew word for the screw – sharbuv – a Hebraicized version of the German word he was translating, Schraube.

Then, in his popular science books, Dr. Benjamin Szereszewski came up with the word slil, which is simply the Hebrew word for spiral.

Not to be outdone, in his dictionary Joshua Steinberg suggested we Hebrews use yaded luli (“spiral stake”). His colleague, the lexicographer Moshe Schulbaum, didn’t so much give a translation for screw but rather a detailed description in Hebrew: “A stake with grooves surrounding it.” In his second edition he provided a neologism of his own, berem, which he created from another Arabic word for screw.

None of these words caught on, and it was left to Eliezer Ben Yehuda to provide Hebrew with a word for screw. In his dictionary, he Hebraicized yet another Arabic word for screw – burgiyye – into the Hebrew word bo-REG, which is the word we use today.

The Arabic word, by the way was a relatively new one at the time, and was itself adapted from the Turkish word burmak, itself derived from a Turkish word for intertwining.