Word of the Day / Itriot

Unbeknownst to many, the Hebrew word for noodles that was introduced in the early 20th century was borrowed from Arabic.

Last week, we discussed lokshim, the Yiddish word for noodle. At the beginning of the 20th century, for lack of a better word in Hebrew, it was used by Palestine’s nascent Hebrew community.

That is, until Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the prominent Hebrew-language revivalist, came into the picture.

In the first volume of his dictionary published in 1908, the word itriya (it-ri-YA) appears as the Hebrew for noodle, but no reference to any earlier use of the word is given; it is clear that he simply took the Arabic word for noodle and transcribed it into Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda knew, however, that his detractors, and they were many, would have a field day if he simply took the word from Arabic. He explained in a footnote, therefore, that the itriya was simply the Hebrew form of the Aramaic itrai and atriya mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, and that these meant noodle.

Ben-Yehuda was feeding us lokshim, so to speak. What are known as noodles in the West were adapted by Arabs in the 5th century for long journeys, according to some scholars, in the first recorded use of dry pasta. This took place after the Jerusalem Talmud was completed, though it is true that Arabs used the word itriya and that it is cognate with the Aramaic itrai and atriya, which are both kinds of bread. All three are descended from the Greek itrion, meaning “little cake.”

Four years after the dictionary was published in 1912, the Committee for the Hebrew Language, founded two years earlier under Ben-Yehuda’s leadership, released a list of Hebrew words for the kitchen, which included the word itriya. It later appeared in Ben-Yehuda’s newspapers and spread successfully, nearly eliminating its predecessor, lokshim.

But just when it seemed that itriot would forever reign supreme, Israeli food manufacturer Osem began to market a new brand of noodles called “Pasta Boloniya” in 1960. Since then the word pasta (PAS-ta) has been gaining on itriot. The latter still used for any noodle that is not of the Italian variety, although most are.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.