Word of the Day Artik: When proto-Russians Met a Bear, a Dessert Was Born

And then Hebrew revivers and the police get involved, and not a little confused.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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One man's ice pop is another man's proto-Germanic word for bear.
One man's ice pop is another man's proto-Germanic word for bear.Credit: Noa Yafe
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Frank Epperson invented the popsicle by accident when he was 11 years old. On an extremely cold night in 1905, he left a cup of soda on the window cell with a stick in it, or so he claimed.

One snag with this story is that Epperson spent his childhood in San Francisco where the nights aren’t cold enough. If it happened at all, it was probably several years later when he lived in Oregon, presumably before applying to patent his invention in 1923.

Be that as it may, Epperson subsequently went on to sell the right to use his invention and the name "popsicle." But he wouldn't profit from his innovation for long, since he was forced to sell his stake following the collapse of the economy in 1929. ''I was flat and had to liquidate all my assets,'' he was quoted as saying in his New York Times death announcement in 1985. ''I haven't been the same since.''

Near the bear in proto-Russia

Before we discuss the popsicle making aliyah to Israel, we first must visit another cool place – the prehistoric plains of Russia, where an ancient people once lived and spoke a language at least partially recreated by linguists, named by them Proto-Indo-European.

No direct evidence of this language exists. If people did speak it, they didn't write it. But linguists have reconstructed a theoretical lexicon by analyzing the many languages that evolved from it over the years.

One of the words linguists believe these ancient people used is hartcus, literally meaning “destroyer” but also serving as their word for “bear” – as well as the name of the constellation Ursa Major (“The Big Dipper”).

This word spread as the word for the mammal – and the constellation – among the evolving Indo-European languages. For example, the ancient Iranian language Avestan called the bear rasha, Armenian used arj, Latin had Ursus, the Welsh said arth, the Albanian called it ari, the ancient Indian language Sanskrit used raksha, and the ancient Greeks referred to the ferocious beast as arctus.

(The Germanic languages, which are also Indo-European, lost their ancient word for bear. Linguists believe this is due to a superstition among Germanic hunters that prohibited saying the names of wild beasts. Thus bears there have names derived from the Proto-Germanic word for brown – beronaz.)

Meanwhile, due to Ursa Major’s vicinity to the Northern Star Polaris, the Greek began using the word arcticos – literally “near the bear” – to mean north. This word was adopted into Latin in the form of arcticus. And once the Roman Empire collapsed, the Roman province Gaul slowly turned into France and the Latin spoken there slowly turned into French.

One example of this shift is the turning of arcticus into arctique. In French, this word was also applied to the most northern point on the planet – the Arctic.

The frozen north state of mind

In 1952, a group of Belgian-Jewish investors founded the first modern popsicle factory in Israel. They called their brand artik, a corruption of the French word for the frozen Arctic. (Hebrew doesn’t abide with consonants placed in a row without a vowel between them, thus the ‘c’ had to go.)

The brand may have been Artik, but the generic word for popsicle was shilgon. That was a sort of a translation of glaçon, the Belgian-French diminutive of ice.

A better translation to Hebrew might have been karkhon (the Hebrew word for ice is kerakh) but that word was already taken for iceberg.

Technically, shilgon was also already taken since it was once used to mean "avalanche" in the Middle Ages, but since no one had used it in that context since that wasn't a problem.

Anyway, the Artik corporation had a monopoly over the market for a year until 1953, when local ice-cream manufacturers and foreign investors opened another popsicle factory that they called Kartiv, a portmanteau of two words kar, meaning "cold," and tiv, meaning "quality." The contest didn’t last long and in 1954 the two companies merged to create a single company, Artik-Kartiv.

In 1961, police raided Artik-Kartiv's company’s factories and offices, in the culmination of the biggest tax-dodging investigation in Israeli history up to then. Four company executives received short prison sentences and fines.

The company was fined too and forced to pay back taxes. It never recovered. Artik-Kartiv was bought by a foreign conglomerate in 1965 and collapsed once and for all in 1971 under a truly impressive pile of debt.

Although Artik-Kartiv is long gone, Israeli children continued to use its names artik and kartiv to mean popsicle. During the 1980s, each received a slightly different meaning. Artik became a dairy popsicle, while kartiv became confined to water-based ice pops, though this distinction seems to be losing force. The word shilgon morphed into shalgon. But that too is slowly disappearing, and becoming supplanted by artik and kartiv, with artik being far more common.

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