Word of the Day / Segalgal: Why Israelis Think the Oval Office Is Purple

This ancient word thrived from antiquity to the mid-20th century, when it suddenly changed meaning.

Elon Gilad
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Bibi and Barack meeting in what Israelis think is called the "purple office" but actually, that word "segalgal" means "oval."Credit: Reuters
Elon Gilad

In biblical Hebrew, the root s-g-l means "special." The Jewish people, for instance, are called an “am segula.”

Yet our word of the day today, se-gal-GAL, means lavender – in other words, a light shade of violet.

Ostensibly, one might think segalgal originates from that s-g-l root. It doesn't. Rather, it first appears in Jewish Aramaic during the Rabbinical Age (about 1,500 C.E.) and its root is apparently g-l-l, meaning "round." (That added “S” before the root denotes passivity.)

The rabbinic literature, both the Mishna and Talmud, refer to segalgal and segal numerous times, always in the context of "round."

Segalgal entered Hebrew from these ancient texts and appears throughout Medieval Hebrew as round, or oval – a use that persisted until the middle of the 20th century.

Say it with sigali flowers

Today, nary a soul uses segalgal to mean round or oval – except in the specific case of the Oval Office. Yes, the office of the president of the United States in the White House.

The Hebrew name of the office became fixed early in the 20th century, before Hebrew stopped using segalgal to mean round or oval. But why were these meanings pushed out? For that, we must return to the Aramaic of the rabbis, and a flower that they called sigali.

The sigali appears a few times in the Talmud, once in Tractate Shabbat (50b) in a discussion about what materials one may use when showering on the Sabbath. There we are told the blind Rabbi Sheshet of the 3rd and 4th centuries said that one can use barda. To which Rabbi Joseph, it is written, responds “What is barda?” The Talmud answers that it is a mixture of equal proportion of three different plants - ahala, assa and sigali.

The identity of these plants cannot be determined, and honestly it doesn’t really matter. No one has any intention of using barda on Saturday or any other day.

As for the sigali, based on its name it was probably round, as many flowers are; also, it probably had a strong scent, since for the rabbis showering involved mainly concealing one’s stench with pleasant smells.

The 11th-century scholar Rashi, writing in what is today southern France, didn’t let this lack of information get in his way. In his commentary on the Talmudic discussion mentioned above, he categorically and without explanation proclaimed that the sigali was “a viol and it has three leaves.”

Over the ages, the color that the French called viol during Rashi's time morphed into violette. By the 14th century, the French started using this flower's name to refer to its color, a use that spread to German and English and other languages. It is where English gets its word violet. (Before that time there just wasn’t a word for this color. It was considered merely a shade of blue or red depending on context.)

No word for That Color

Just as European languages had no word for purple, neither did Hebrew. But with Hebrew, the need to invent one came much later, in the 19th century, with the development of Hebrew writing on secular matters as a part of the Jewish enlightenment – the Haskalah.

In 1891, Eliezer Ben Yehuda reported to his readers in Hatzvi that Jewish students at the University of Chernovich had established a Jewish fraternity call “Hashmonia,” who wrote in a letter to Ben Yehuda that they had to wear uniforms colored "red, sagol, and green.”

We don’t know whether the students wrote the letter in Hebrew or whether Ben Yehuda translated it from German or some other language, which is more likely. Either way, this is the first Hebrew reference of sagol in the sense of a color meaning violet.

So either Ben-Yehuda or the students knew of Rashi’s strange identification of the sigali, and adopted it in translating violet into Hebrew.

Sagol meaning purple spread through Hebrew in the 20th century. And once Hebrew had sagol, it was easy to form the word segalgal to mean a light shade of purple – just as other colors can be made light by doubling the last two radicals.

As more people used segalgal to mean lavender, people stopped using it to mean "round," with one exception – the Oval Office, ha-heder ha-segalgal. And that explains why a lot of Israelis think the Oval Office is purple.

Purple redbud blossoms: This is the color now referred to as 'segalgal'.Credit: Dan Peretz

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