Word of the Day / Sevivon: Who Dunnit?

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We know "sevivon" means "top," as in spinning toy, but who came up with the word first?Credit: Haaretz

For centuries, that spinning top Jewish children have played with on Hanukkah since the Middle Ages has been called dreidel. That is a Yiddish word that simply means spinner.

But at the turn of the 20th century, when Hebrew speakers were trying to purge foreign words from their speech, a new Hebrew word was born - sevivon.

Sevivonim - Hanukkah tops (also known as dreidels, in Yiddish) made of marzipan.Credit: Tamir Peled

Sevivon simply means thing that turns. The question is who coined the phrase, and two people demand the credit: the writer David Isaiah Silberbusch and language reviver Itamar Ben Yehuda.

In an article in the newspaper HaZfira in 1897, Silberbusch wrote The name of the gift I have in my archive I will tell you: sevivon is its name. It is the Hebrew name... that I gave the toy that children play with in Hanukkah that is called dreidel in foreign tongues.

But in his memoir, Ben Yehuda wrote that when he was five, which would have been 1887, he handed his mother a top and said Look, I found a sevivon for Hanukkah. To which the proud mother replied How lovely is the word you created.

Whatever the case, the word had to compete with a whole slew of contenders until it became the Hebrew word for the dreidel.

The poet Haim Nachman Bialik suggested karakr (spinner). The writer Mendele Mocher Sefarim used khazarzar-oferet (lead-turner), and other writers produced scharcheret (yet again – spinner), galgelan ("it rolls"), sav sav, sevivan (both a sort of spinning thing) and forfera (which isn't even Hebrew, it's German). But in the end, sevivon won the battle, while the rest have been forgotten forever.