Word of the Day Hashmal

The Hebrew word for electricity made its debut in the book of Ezekiel, in a fantastical depiction of an apparition.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The modern-day word for electricity, pronounced hash-MAL, made its debut in Hebrew in the book of Ezekiel, but back then it didn’t mean what it has come to mean today. Ezekiel, to the best of our knowledge, lived in an electricity-free world. Yet what it denotes isn’t exactly clear, since the word appears in a fantastical depiction of an apparition viewed solely by the prophet.

The first translation of the Bible into Greek, the Septuagint, translated the word into elektron, a word that meant amber, or petrified tree resin. The Romans adopted the Greek word, which was later adopted from the Latin into English.

During the 15th century, some English persons started rubbing pieces of amber with cloth and observed the then-mysterious phenomenon known today as static electricity. More materials were subsequently discovered with properties similar to amber and were thus described as electricus, Latin for amber-like. This was later translated by Sir Francis Bacon into the English "electric."

The years passed and the use of electricity, and the word to describe it, spread around the world. Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe dubbed it "electritzitat."

Judah Leib Gordon, one the early poets of the Jewish Enlightenment, gave Hebrew its word for electricity, in one of his poems where he praises science and technology. “The light, the heat, the steam, and the electricity (hash-ma-LA), all nature's forces are the angels above,” he wrote, explaining in a footnote, “by hash-ma-LA, I mean the natural force that is electritzitat, since the Greek translation of hash-MAL is "elektrika.”

This word caught on, and in 1923, when Pinhas Rutenberg established the Israel Electric Corporation, he already had a Hebrew word to describe the flashy product he was selling.

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

'Hashmal' first appeared in the context of a fantastical depiction of an apparition viewed solely by the prophet.Credit: Bloomberg
AmberCredit: Wikimedia Commons

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