Word of the Day Ketifa: How Don Quixote Brought 'Velvet' to Hebrew

The Spanish satire's translator needed some words that didn't exist yet, but made an odd decision.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
"Ketifa," or velvet.
"Ketifa," or velvet.Credit: Dreamstime
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for velvet is ke-ti-FA, though Israelis generally pronounce it kti-FA.

Literally, ketifa is a noun meaning “the act of picking,” as in picking flowers. But that isn't where the word for velvet came from, at least not initially.

Ketifa is first used to denote velvet in the second Hebrew translation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which was translated by David Yudelevich in 1894.

While doing the translation, Yudelevich, one of the first Hebrew teachers in Israel during the early days of the revival of Hebrew, encountered several words for which he could not find an exact Hebrew translation. One was "velvet."

Yudelevich then did what other Hebrew revivers often did to fill a lexical gap – he looked to Arabic. He chose ketifa, which he explained meant "velvet," he explained in a footnote, adding that he derived it from the Arabic.

This is where things get tricky, though. The Arabic word ka-ti-FAT doesn't mean velvet – the word for that is MUKH-mal. The word that Yudelevich chose actually means the plant amaranth, but is also used for a fine cloth as well.

At any rate, the word made its way into Hebrew from Yudelevich’s translation with the help of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who included it in his dictionary. And to this day Israelis use it for all their velvety (kti-fa-TI) needs.

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