Word of the Day Sagol: The Word That Meant Purple, Maybe

Or maybe it didn't, but it does today, thanks to perhaps divine inspiration given to Rashi.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Roses are red, violets ... aren't blue, they're purple!
Roses are red, violets ... aren't blue, they're purple!Credit: Dreamstime.com
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for purple is sa-GOL. This is a relatively new addition to the Hebrew language.

As we’ve been discussing, in 1969 two researchers, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, suggested that there is a basic order to which languages acquire words for colors, starting with two words crudely parsing the color wheel in half: black and white. After red the next color to join is an amalgam of colors including yellow, green and blue, which biblical Hebrew called yarok. After which we expect blue and brown to join in.

The final stage according to Berlin and Kay was the joining of orange, gray, purple and pink in no particular order. Today we are discussing purple, which as we have said, is sagol.

The word was apparently first used in 1891 by a group of students at the university in Chernivtsi, now in the Ukraine. Some of the Jewish students at the university set up a kind of fraternity, which they dubbed Hashmionia. That we know; what they meant by sagol is another question.

In an announcement they sent to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s newspaper, at the time called HaOr, they described the uniforms they planned on wearing: “Its members will wear these shades: red, sagol and green.” Clearly, they were not fashion design majors.

We cannot really know for a fact that sagol did mean purple.

Two years later Ben Yehuda himself used the word in a short report on color photography. “In an exhibit of photographs Mr. Lumiere presented a true representation of a flower bouquet in all its minute shades: red, sagol, green, blue (the word kakhol wasn’t yet conceived, so Ben Yehuda used takhol), and other shades too.” Once again, we can only guess that he meant purple. This is made explicit in 1898 when, also in Ben Yehuda’s newspaper, David Yudelevitch explicitly writes that sagol is “what in all languages is called violet.”

What to use to perfume the hair?

So where did this word come from?

Well, originally the root s- meant either "round" or "special." And it comes up many times in the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud and later texts with this meaning.

One of these times, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 50b), the root s-g-l appears as the name of a plant. A group of rabbis are discussing with what a Nazarite, who is prohibited from washing his hair, may scent his hair. One says powdered brick. Another says crushed poppy seeds, and yet another says pepper. Then Rabbi Shesheth says brada. Later rabbis asked what this brada was, to which Rabbi Nehemiah Ben Joseph answered that it was a tripartite concoction of ahala, asa and sigali.

Approximately 400 years later, Rashi in France was elucidating this text. He identified - God knows how - the first as aloe, the second as myrtle and the third as “a weed that is called viol” by which he meant the plant we call violet.

Thus hundreds of years later when a group of students needed a Hebrew word for one of the colors of their uniforms, they could translate the German violett itself - named for the violet -and put it in the structure of Hebrew color lexemes, creating the word sagol.

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