Word of the Day Zihooey: Trust Mathematicians to Create a Compound Word

Some time in the dimmest reaches of ancient Rome, a need was identified.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

When an Israeli sees someone across the room and can identify him, we would say that he zi-HA that person, with the action of identification being called zi-HOOeY.

Though a relatively new verb, its root stretches back to ancient Rome. But before we peer into the dim reaches of human history, let us first see where the English word "identity" comes from.

"Identity" entered English in the 16th century, possibly from the French, or directly from the Latin. The word is made up of the Latin word idem (“the same”) and suffix -ity.

The word idem itself comprises the Latin word id (“it”) with the ending -em. That’s all we need from the Latin: let’s go back to Hebrew.

In 1900, Hebrew reviver Eliezer Ben Yehuda wrote in his newspaper Hatzvi “In the last bill from the Shaar Zion hospital in Jaffa, I found a lovely linguistic creation, imprinted with a clear Hebraic stamp: a term that would reflect the foreign word identité."

Indeed, like the Latin compilation, the word that wowed Ben Yehuda combined two elements: zeh, the Hebrew word for “it”, with the suffix -oot, which denotes abstractions like the ending "-ness" in English. Thus arose the word zehoot.

The person who coined the word must have known his Latin.

A few years later, in 1925 someone had the clever idea of creating a verb "to identify" based on Ben-Gurion's pet phrase. "Zihooey" appears first in a newspaper report on the identification process in a trial.

A few years later the Committee of the Hebrew Language's math committee coined the adjective ze-HEH, meaning "identical."

So there it is. That’s how Hebrew got a family of words: identify, identical, identity: zihooey, zehe, and zehut.

Hebrew needed a word for "identical," such as in the case of the twins Sharon and Dorit Alubik.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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