Word of the Day Mesha'amem: The Word That Didn't Mean Boring but Does Now

Arabic has been a rich source for reviving the Hebrew language. It helps to get its words right.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Newly-minted Finance Minister Yair Lapid experiencing a Knesset session. Is he bored?
Newly-minted Finance Minister Yair Lapid experiencing a Knesset session. Is he bored?Credit: Michal Fattal
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Last Thursday, we discussed the word me’anyen (interesting), and how Eliezer Ben-Yehuda invented it to describe a particularly egregious French-Jewish bribery-broker on February 3, 1893. Possibly emboldened by his new word, Ben-Yehuda felt it high time to decide on a word to mean its opposite, "boring."

How did he accomplish this? Based on an Arabic word, Ben-Yehuda reinterpreted a nearly 2,000-year-old word he had found in the Mishnah - mesha'amem – to fill the lexical gap.

“For years we had struggled to exactly translate into Hebrew the term that the French designate ennui and the German call Langeweile, which means ‘the soul's fatigue at sitting idly,'” Ben Yehuda explained in a column appearing in the same issue of Ha’or, in which me’anyen first appeared.

He then proceeded to explain how he decided that the Hebrew word for "boring" should be mesha’amem.

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When looking for words that he could not find in Hebrew, Ben-Yehuda would tap Arabic, which like Hebrew is a Semitic language and thus is closely related to Hebrew. Since Arabic was continuously used over the millennia, it preserved words that Hebrew had lost because they weren’t preserved in the written record.

In the column, Ben-Yehuda notes that Arabic has three roots that signify boredom: m-l-l, tz-g-r and sh-a-m (though actually he was mistaken - one of these actually doesn’t mean boredom at all).

He went on to explain that Hebrew cannot adopt the first – m-l-l, because in Hebrew, this root means "word." Then he (mistakenly) equates the root tz-g-r, with tz-a-r, which Hebrew uses for sorrow. This according to Ben-Yehuda leaves only sh-a-m.

“We think we found this word in Hebrew too,” Ben-Yehuda wrote, referring to a passage in the Mishnah that states “idleness leads to she’amum.”

But Ben-Yehuda makes two errors here when identifying the ancient Hebrew word she’amum with the Arabic root sh-a-m. For one, the middle letter of the root (the "a") is different. In Arabic it's the letter alef while in Hebrew, it's ayin.

Confusing alef and ayin is a big mistake – sort of like confusing the letter r with g.

Secondly, the root of she’amum isn’t sh-a-m. It's a-m-m (the shin isn’t a part of the root. Let's not get into it – it isn't). Both Arabic and Hebrew share the root a-m-m, meaning “to darken” or "to dim." In Arabic, it also bears the metaphoric sense of being depressed.

It is likely that it was this meaning – depression – that the Mishnah warned might befall housewives kept in idleness, not boredom, as Ben-Yehuda suggested or insanity as the rabbis over the ages assumed.

Although Ben-Yehuda’s suggestion to use the word mesha’amem was based on error, a fact that was pointed out by others at the time, the word caught on. A few years later, verbs were formed based on this adjective - lesha’amem (to bore) and lehishta’amem (to be bored) and these are used to this very day.

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