Word of the Day Pirsomet: The Word for Advertisement Beats a 19th-century Rival

The loser, reklama, came to Hebrew via Latin, French and German, but a Hebrew poet didn't like that.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The most ancient surviving Greek text to contain the word parrhesia is Euripides' "Hippolytus," a play from the fifth century B.C.E. In it, Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, wishes her own death so that her children may live as free citizens and enjoy parrhesia – the right to speak freely, a right the Greeks were not only jealously proud of but saw as their civic duty. It’s a portmanteau of the Greek pas (“all” or “every”) and rehsis (“utterance” or “speech”).

The term spread throughout the Hellenistic world, including to the Jews, who during the time of the Mishna adopted the word in an altered form and with an altered meaning. They created two roots, p.r.s. and p.r.s.m., meaning "to make something public" or "to announce."

The four-letter root is an anomaly. First, Hebrew tries to avoid four-letter roots. And where did the fourth letter, the mem, come from?

It is believed that the fourth letter was once a samech, which would make sense since the genitive form of the Greek word is parrhesis. But there may have been a copying mistake, because the final mem looks almost identical to a samech.

While in the Mishna the three-letter root was more common, in the Talmud and in subsequent rabbinic texts the four-letter root became the common form – all the more so with the invention of the printing press.

Hebrew advertising was born in January 1858 when the first Hebrew weekly, Hamagid, printed an advertisement for three books under the title hota’ot ("messages"). Its competitor Hamelitz started printing ads in 1860, using the word moda’ot, the term still used to mean ads today.

But these were rudimentary ads; the world was still waiting for Thomas J. Barratt to come out with the first modern advertisement. It was for his father-in-law’s soap, Pears Soap, in 1866. The ad featured a young boy looking up at a soap bubble.

This newfangled advertising quickly spread around the world to include Germany, where an ad is called a Reklame, from the French réclamer ("to claim"), in turn from the Latin clamo ("I shout"). The word spread to many languages including Russian, Yiddish and Turkish.

The word reklama first appeared in Hebrew in an article in the newspaper Hahashkafa. They year was 1886. According to the piece, an American shoe manufacturer boasted in his ads that a group of soldiers had been blown up, and all that remained were their well-crafted shoes.

Reklama remained the Hebrew word for advertising until 20th-century poet Avraham Shlonsky lost financial backing for his literary publication Ktuvim. Needing money to keep publishing, he started composing jingles.

Not happy to sell reklamot (the plural of reklama), he came up with a Hebrew alternative, pirsomet. Shlonsky’s neologism and reklama fought it out during the 1930s until pirsomet won the battle and became the Hebrew word for ads.

'Reklama' remained the Hebrew word for advertising until 'pirsomet' was coined.

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