Word of the Day Naknikiya - How the Hebrew Word for Hot Dog Originated With an Ancient Italian Tribe

Eliezer Ben Yehuda coined the Hebrew word for sausage, naknik, which inspired the name for frankfurters.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Lucani were an ancient Italic tribe living in Lucania, in what is today southern Italy. Evidently they made great sausages, which were prized throughout the ancient world -- and this excellence is even evidenced by the Hebrew word for hot dogs and (and sometimes sausages), naknikiya (nak-ni-ki-YA).

By the fourth century, the Greeks had taken to calling sausages “Lukaniko,” the name which to this day is used for pork sausage. As we have seen with the Hebrew word for noodle, at this time the Greek had significant culinary influence on the Jews of Palestine. And as with the case for the modern-day word for noodle, the Greek word for sausage also made its way into the Jerusalem Talmud.

“A noknika was forgotten in a synagogue,” one passage reads (Shekalim 7:2). Early interpreters of the Talmud understood noknika as meaning jug, as it is similar to the Hebrew word for jug, kankan. However, later interpretations, including that of the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Marcus Jastrow, hypothesized that this was a copying error and that the text originally said that it was a lonkinka -- a sausage -- that was forgotten in the synagogue.

At the time Jastrow was working on his Talmudic dictionary, the mid-19th-century, people who wished to write about sausages in Hebrew used the Aramaic word for intestine “karkasha.” This is the same word used by an anonymous detractor of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who in 1908, published a letter on the second page of the Jerusalem newspaper “Havatzelet,” under the name “The Accuser.”

On Sunday, May 31, 1908 “E. Ben Yehuda celebrated the birthday of his daughter, and the celebrating girl invited her friends from school to celebrate the occasion with her,” “The Accuser” wrote. “And the housewife served them bread spread with butter and sausage.” Eating meat and dairy products together is forbidden under Jewish dietary law, which is why he ended his letter with a call to action. “And you, who know the way the Ben Yehuda household is run and the spirit that exists there, isn’t it your duty to ban from your schools girls and boys that ruin and poison the religious education of innocent good Hebrew girls?”

The Ben Yehudas couldn’t ignore this attack and they had a newspaper in which to voice their response anyway. So the next week in their paper the “Hashkafa” they ran a response letter written by Hemda, Eliezer’s wife. “It was reported that I served unkosher food to children in my home -- bread with butter and sausage. This is an utter lie! On the table were placed three bowls: One with bread, one with bread and butter, and one with bread and sausage. And I explicitly told them: Children! Who wants bread and butter? Who want bread and sausage? Who wants bread alone? We aren’t pious or hypocrites, but we have no intention of causing anyone to fault, especially not children against the wishes of their fathers,” she wrote.

In the letter written by “The Accuser” the word used for sausages was the old word karkashashot (the plural form of karkasha), while Ben Yehuda used the word naknik. According to Ben Yehuda he coined the word, though this is the first time he used it in print, while David Firshman, another Hebrew journalist and later publisher, used it already in 1886, in the Saint Petersburg Hebrew newspaper “Hayom,” though in the form noknik. This paper and “Hamelitz,” another Hebrew paper published in Odessa, regularly used the word in since 1886.

Now to the word naknikiya. Derived from naknik, this word was used for a sausage shop since the beginning of the 20th century, while the word for hot dog was supposed to be naknikit. But from the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew speakers preferred naknikiya, despite linguists pleading it was incorrect. So that during most of the 20th century the word naknikiya doubled for both sausage shop and hot dog. Toward the end of the century though, the sausage shops all closed, with Israelis opting to by their sausages and hot dogs in supermarkets and butcher shops. So now the word naknikiya is only used for hot dogs.

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

Who knew this food gots its name from an Italian tribe?Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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