The biblical story of the Jews coming out of Egypt may be one of salvation from a life of servitude. But is also one of incessant complaint, with everything about Egypt suddenly looking rosy in retrospect.
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In one such incident, the Bible tells us the Israelites said: “We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5).
The word used for garlic is shumim, the plural of the far more common word shum, pronounced shoom.
But shum doesn’t just mean “garlic.” It is also an integral part of terms like shum davar (“nothing”), shum makom (“nowhere”), beshum ofen (“no way”) and shum klum, a more colloquial phrase similar to “a whole lot of nothing,” though it literally means something more like “no nothing” or “nothing nothing.”
If you put shum in a sentence, it functions as a negation of the word that follows, meaning “no” in the sense of “not any.”
A song about a stereotypical wealthy man living a life of ease, sung by Shmulik Kraus, an actor and pop singer who died earlier this year, is called “Adon [Mr.] Shum Klum”: “As usual, he left today / on his way to shum makom / He got to the office / to meet with no one / better early than late / to talk about shum davar… If Adon Shum Klum dies / it will be of boredom.”
But what does garlic have to do with anything – or, rather, with nothing? The answer is: Nothing much.
The word shum that makes in appearance in terms like shum davar and shum klum is a different form of the word shem, meaning “name,” according to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. It explains that shum was not originally a negation, but meant “any” or “some,” referring to something that is small or minor (“We didn’t ask for a single thing” rather than “We asked for nothing”).
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the primary figure behind the revival of the Hebrew language, describes the link between shum and shem, as well as its meaning of “any”: “Shum ish [man] – anything called by the name ‘man,’ any kind of man.”
Whether shum originally meant “none” or “any,” at least you can rest easy that Garlic Man probably won’t get bitten by a vampire.
To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.