Word of the Day / Mazgan: Who Do You Love, Your Bartender or Your Air Conditioner?

The modern word for 'air conditioner' went through some startling permutations.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Air conditioners didn't reach Israel before the mid-1950s, before which nobody thought to give them a name.
Air conditioners didn't reach Israel before the mid-1950s, before which nobody thought to give them a name.Credit: David Bachar
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

How anyone survives the Tel Aviv summer without an air conditioner is a mystery, but it's a fact that people did it for years. In fact, the air conditioner only reached Israel in 1955, brought by a man with a truly ironic name – Judah Gesundheit, an importer of electronics and the man behind the Israeli group Electra.

But the Hebrew word for the machine – maz-GAN – originates not in a Tel Aviv electronics store but from mixed wine in the Bible.

“Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor” (Song of Solomon 7:2). That which the King James Bible rendered "liquor" is mazeg in the original Hebrew. That is the only biblical use of the root M-Z-G and is thus its first recorded use in Hebrew.

Where this word came from is contested. Some believe that it’s a proto-Semitic root meaning “to pour,” which is unlikely, although that's one meaning of the root in modern Hebrew.

Apparently, mazeg in the Song of Solomon is a borrowing from Aramaic, which in turn borrowed it from Akkadian – the language that Aramaic displaced as the lingua franca of the ancient Near East.

The best theory is that the original Akkadian word was muziku, which meant “raisin.” This word gave its name to a kind of alcoholic beverage and, eventually, to mixed wine in Aramaic.Then this Aramaic noun for mixed wine gave rise to a verb with the root M-Z-G meaning "to mix."

Hebrew adopted this root during the Babylonian Captivity. It has been appearing in Hebrew texts since the Mishna (200 C.E.).

Blood and bile

The Arabs also adopted the same Aramaic root, creating the word mazaj – a mixture of liquids. In the Middle Ages, mazaj referred to the particular mixture of humors in a person. A person's ratio of the four humors – blood, black bile, phlegm and yellow bile – were believed to be the source of illness and health, and also to determine a person's particular temperament.

Thus a person’s mazaj, "mixture," determined one’s nature. (The word temperament itself is derived from a Latin verb meaning “to mix”.)

Back to the Jews. When Rabbi Judah Ibn Tibbon was translating Yehuda Halevy’s philosophical book "The Kuzari" from Arabic into Hebrew, he came across that word mazaj. Not finding a Hebrew word for it (his son would come up with the Hebrew word for "nature" – teva – only a few years later), he expanded the word mezeg to be parallel to the Arabic mazaj.

Some decades later, when Nathan Hame’ati was translating Avicenna's "Canon of Medicine" from Arabic to Hebrew, he also encountered a word with no Hebrew parallel: the Arabic word meaning "climate." He took Ibn Tibbon's mezeg and coined the phrase "mezeg avir" – literally "the nature of the air," which has become the Hebrew phrase for “weather.”

As for Electra, it called its first imported air conditioners "mazgan avir," meaning something like “weather maker.” But that was cumbersome and people truncated it to mazgan – which during the period of the British Mandate meant "bartender," not "machine to cool the air before we suffocate."

By 1955, mazgan as "barman" had completely disappeared. Barmen became called "barmenim" and Israelis called their air conditioners mazganim (that’s the plural of mazgan). That probably makes sense. They're probably more attached to their air conditioners than to their local barmen.

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