Word of the Day Me'anyen: How a Jewish French Crook Inspired the Hebrew Word for 'Interesting'

Our story begins in the late 19th century, when two Jews brokered elephantine bribes to French leaders.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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The Panama Canal, behind which lies the biggest financial scandal of the 19th century, and the inspiration for the Hebrew word for "interesting."
The Panama Canal, behind which lies the biggest financial scandal of the 19th century, and the inspiration for the Hebrew word for "interesting."Credit: Reuters
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

February 3, 1893 was an important day in the history of the Hebrew vocabulary. In that day’s edition of Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s newspaper Haor, not only did the words me’anyen (interesting) and its opposite mesha’amem (boring) appear for the first time, but also printed in that paper was the suggestion that Hebrew adopt the word shagrir for ambassador. That did in fact happen, but we’ll discuss it another day.

Today we’ll talk about me’anyen and next week we’ll discuss me’sha’amem.

Our story takes us to Paris, in the year 1892, where one Dr. Cornelius Herz, a German-French-American Jew, was in the center of a massive scandal in France.

The French company that was building a canal in Panama had entered dire financial straits. Its heads - the builder of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand De Lesseps, the tower builder Gustave Eiffel and others - bribed over 100 French members of parliament to hide the situation from the public.

Herz and another Jew, Baron Jacques de Reinach, were the middlemen who administered the bribes.

The Panama scandal is regarded as the biggest monetary corruption scandal of the 19th century, with almost a billion gold francs (about 300 million grams) spiraling down the drain. According to the political theorist Hannah Arendt, it played a major role in the rise of anti-Semitism in France in the years preceding the Dreyfus affair.

Put in today's terms, a single gram of gold is selling for $41.59 (bid price).

Herz wasn’t just a middleman for corrupt payouts. In addition to being a doctor and a medical officer in the French army, he played a central role in the process of building the electrical and telephone infrastructure in France and other European countries. He was also the publisher of the world’s first electronics journal. In short, he was an interesting man and Haor wanted to run a story about him.

But Hebrew didn’t have a word for interesting. So Ben Yehuda invented one - me’anyen, which, he explained in a footnote, came from the word inyan, meaning "subject" or "matter."

Thus was born the word me’anyen. A few years later, after this word came into general parlance, it was turned into a verb too – le'anyen - to pique interest.

Cornelius Herz, whose crimes - brokering bribes to French leaders - are associated with the rise of anti-Semitism in France, in the late 19th century.Credit: Wikimedia

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