Word of the Day Milon

Hebrew dictionary writer had to start by inventing a word for 'dictionary.'

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Before writing a dictionary, Eliezer Ben Yehuda needed to think of a word for one.
Before writing a dictionary, Eliezer Ben Yehuda needed to think of a word for one.Credit: Shiran Granot
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

One of the most important figures in the revival of Hebrew into a modern language was Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Based on biblical Hebrew and other languages, he contributed dozens of words to the language. Some never did catch on but many did enter the language and are in use to this very day including: Varod (“pink”), meanyen (“interesting”), mesha’amem (“boring”), ofanayim (“bicycle”), and rakevet (“train”).

It is perhaps fitting that a man so engulfed in the world of words, a man whose crowning achievement was the writing of a massive dictionary, would start his long string of neologisms with a Hebrew word for dictionary – mi-LON.

On New Year’s Day 1880, the Magid – a Hebrew newspaper published in Prussia – published an article by Ben Yehuda (then a medical student in Paris) titled “Two New Words.”

In the article, Ben Yehuda bemoaned the use of borrowed translations from German in Hebrew, specifically citing the example of sefer milim (“word book”), a translation of the German word for dictionary – Wörterbuch.

Hebrew shouldn’t use translations of this kind, Ben Yehuda argued: New words should be created based on Hebrew’s arsenal of roots and binyanim (derived stems).

As a case study, he suggested: “According to this rule … based on the word mila (“word”), we can form a new word, milon, which will denote the ‘thing’ or a book which holds within it the words of a language.”

Ben Yehuda and his new word were roundly attacked by critics such as Moshe Leib Lilienblum, who derided Ben Yehuda for artificially “fabricating” words.

Specifically, in the case of the word milon, Lilienblum abhorred using the suffix -on for an object, as it would normally be used as a diminutive.

Ben-Yehuda rebutted that the suffix -on was also used to denote a place – such as in the case of the city Sidon, Lebanon, which would have meant "place of fishing." He eventually prevailed and milon entered the Hebrew vocabulary.

However, the second word he proposed in the same article did not fare as well.

It is true that his invented word mikla did eventually did make it into Hebrew – but not in the sense it was coined by Ben Yehuda. He meant for it to mean cannon. But times advance, and so does the technology of causing death. So, instead of meaning cannon – now called totach – it came to mean, and still does, machine gun.

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