Word of the Day Kova: How Hittite War Gear Turned Into a Baseball Cap.

The Hebrew word for hat could have stayed buried in the Bible, but a rabbi decided to beat swords to ploughshares, and gave modern Hebrew something to cover its head with.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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KovaCredit: Dreamstime
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for hat is ko-VA, but no one pronounces it that way – Israelis put the stress on the first syllable, pronouncing it KO-va.

The word is ancient, but it didn’t used to mean hat; rather, it meant helmet. “And Saul clad David with his apparel, and he put a helmet of brass upon his head, and he clad him with a coat of mail” (1 Samuel 17:38). An interesting thing about this word is that it has two variant spellings with a kof and a kaf, which anyway are pronounced the same nowadays.

The word is apparently not Semitic at source. Scholars have suggested the word was probably adopted from the Hittite language, which may suggest it was the Hittites who introduced helmets to the region. Not only the Hebrew adopted this word from the Hittite: the word entered Aramaic as well, though in that language the meaning of the word shifted to hat.

It was under the influence of the Aramaic that, in the Mishna and Talmud, the word kova started shifting meaning to any headdress. Thus, the word appears here and there in post-biblical texts as both helmet and hat, but rarely.

The word could have been forgotten, used occasionally in history books when referring to the uniforms of knights, but at the end of the 19th century, a bunch of hat-wearing Jewish gentlemen were experimenting with leading their day-to-day lives in Hebrew. This prompted Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz to write the following, in 1891, in a publication of his called Haaretz (no relation): “Many have decided that kova is only a head covering for use in war because it is always found in this context in the Bible. But this isn’t the case, because in the writing of our rabbis, they are considered as the clothing of any man.” Thus Yavetz proposed the word kova be used as hat.

This caught on and is the word people use when referring to hats, though hats aren’t as popular as they used to be back in Yavetz’s day.

A hatCredit: Dreamstime

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