Word of the Day Mapa: Navigating Your Way With a Tablecloth

English owes the word 'map' to Hebrew, not the other way around.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Perhaps the most notorious statement by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one that the former Iranian president did not exactly say. Though he has often been quoted as declaring that Israel must be “wiped off the map,” it turns out that no actual maps were involved.

The New York Times used the "map" quote in its initial report on the 2005 speech that gave rise to the oft-cited phrase. But the paper has subsequently explained that “one problem" with it "was translating a metaphorical turn of phrase in Persian that has no exact English equivalent — there was, for instance, no mention of a map — and there was a heated debate about whether the original statement was a threat or a prediction.”

The Middle East Media Research Institute's translation of the line, in which Ahmadinejad was alluding to an earlier comment by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, did not invoke a map: "'Imam [Khomeini] said: 'This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.' This sentence is very wise. The issue of Palestine is not an issue on which we can compromise.”

Likely taking their cue from the English-language news reports, the Hebrew media also reported that Iran wants Israel erased from the mapa.

Quite a lot of Hebrew words come equipped with multiple meanings, so Israelis have to be adept at taking context into consideration – which is why I doubt they thought Ahmadinejad had reportedly said he would wipe the Little Satan off the tablecloth.

But if that had been what he wanted to say, he would have used the same word (or not used it, as the case may be). Mapa can mean “map” as well as “tablecloth,” as in Tractate Pesahim's pores mapa umekadesh, "spread a tablecloth [mapa] and make kiddush." For the sake of clarity, the latter meaning can be spelled out if the speaker so desires; mapat shulhan ("mapa of the table") is the full phrase leaving no doubt that the mapa in question is for eating, not for studying geography or figuring out the shortest route from here to there.

Your eyes do not deceive you if you’re thinking that “map” and mapa look pretty similar. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the Hebrew borrowed the word from the English or from the Latin mappa, meaning “napkin, tablecloth; signal cloth,” from which the word entered the English language.

According to the late linguist Ernest Klein, an expert in the etymology of both English and Hebrew, it was the Latin that borrowed the word from the Hebrew-Punic mappa, meaning “napkin, cloth, flag.” (Punic, which was spoken in Carthage until about the fourth century, is an extinct Semitic language descended from Phoenician.)

Although modern Hebrew uses the word degel, not mapa, to mean “flag,” the “flag” sense of the original mapa has not been totally lost. The verb for what one generally does with a flag – that is, wave or fly it, – is lehanif, which Klein explains shares the same root (nun vav pey, "to move to and fro; to swing") as mapa.

If ever you misread your mapa and find yourself somewhere where you need to wave a white flag of surrender, I’m sure a mapat shulhan would do in a pinch. Just make sure that when the tablecloth gets wiped down, you're not on it.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

In 1570 Abraham Ortelius created the 'first modern atlas.'Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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