Word of the Day Khoom, the Word for Brown That Probably Meant 'Spotted With a Nasty Temper'

Or maybe it meant something else entirely, but the fact is, it almost certainly didn't mean brown.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

There is a theory that proto-languages had only two words for color: black and white. This theory, by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, postulates that as each language evolved, it developed words for specific colors, the first generally being "red." Interestingly, it seems that what the ancients called "red" – adom - actually encompassed a wide spectrum of colors, including brown.

So how did brown – khoom - become a color of its own?

The word khoom first appears in Genesis: "I will pass through all thy flock to day, removing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats: and of such shall be my hire.” (30:32)

That word "brown" is the King James Bible's translation for khoom. The context is cattle.

King James' is the first translation to translate khoom in this way. The Greek Septuagint rendered khoom as “gray, dark-complexioned”, while the Aramaic and Latin translations settled for “dark.”

It is even possible that the word "khoom" didn’t refer to a color at all, but a pattern of coloring, just as even today some Bedouin tribes in the Negev have no words for colors: instead they have descriptions of livestock patterns (e.g., lui: "white with black head and rump," jeholi: "black with white forelegs, a white band extending the top of the shoulders").

The other obscure words used in this passage may also be descriptors of this kind. There is just no way to know.

Brown as blood?

In any case, there is no mention of anything that could have been the color brown in any of the old Jewish texts. The earliest Hebrew reference to brown I could find was a discussion by Rabbi Jacob Emden written in the 18th century, in Germany, regarding the different shades of menstrual blood, that really does not bear elaboration here. Being at a loss for a Hebrew word for brown, the rabbi used a transliteration of the German word for brown – braun. Later rabbis followed suit and used the same transliteration.

The use of this loan from German died out in the late 19th century, when writers began using the word khoom to mean brown, possibly influenced by the probably unfounded translation of the King James Bible.

The earliest reference to the use of khoom in this way is in an article in the daily newspaper Hamelitz from 1889 in which the Ethiopian general and politician Ras Alula Engida is described. “He is a man of medium height, he has skin that is khoom like chocolate, he is sturdy and fat though his face is skinny and gaunt.”

A picture of a white cow, a brown cow and a black and white cow...any or all of which could be 'khoom'. Maybe.Credit: Gil Eliahu
The Ethiopian general and politician Ras Alula Engida, whose skin was described as 'khoom.'Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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