On Root

Split Sunflower Seeds, Not Atoms

Though Israel is in a permanent state of emergency, the rich vocabulary pertaining to bombs, explosions and threats will likely remain long after peace prevails.

Headlines these days are filled with talk of the Iranian nuclear threat, ha’iyum hagar’ini. Many critical questions are being asked: Will they bomb us? Should we bomb them? What will the U.S. do? And what is the connection anyway between sunflower seeds (gar’inim) and nuclear bombs? This column will deal with the last of these, and other etymological quandaries.

The Hebrew word in question is gar’in. As we’ve had occasion to discuss here, most Hebrew words are based on a tri-literal root. While there are a certain number of four-letter roots in Hebrew, more often a word with four consonants in its base form (here: gimel-resh-ayin-nun) is a tip-off that this may have a foreign source. And indeed, gar’in actually comes from a Greek word (karoun) meaning “nut,” which may be related to the Latin root that gives us the English “grain,” which does look suspiciously similar.

The nuclear threat

Since Mishnaic times (the first centuries of the Common Era), gar’in has meant “seed.” In modern times, an additional layer of meaning has been added from the world of particle physics, and the word now also means “nucleus.” In contemporary Israel, both meanings are very common. The adjectival form, gar’ini, means “nuclear,” as in energia gar’init, “nuclear energy,”orthe phrase, ha’iyum hagar’ini, “the nuclear threat.”

The plural noun form,gar’inim, usually refers to black sunflower seeds, which are the snack of choice for the average sports fan and just plain folks sitting around, talking and noshing. I consider it a personal failure of my absorption into this country that I have neither mastered the art of eating gar’inim, nor really fathomed its attraction.

For those who have never witnessed this quintessential Israeli act, eating gar’inim consists of inserting the seeds individually between the teeth, cracking down and splitting them, then using only the tongue – a certain lingual dexterity is essential – extracting the tiny edible seed within, and then spitting out the larger black shells, usually on the ground (well, they are “organic”).

The Hebrew phrase for this is pitzuach gar’inim, which actually focuses on the splitting action – the root p-tz-ch referring to breaking or cracking open. So for this type of gar’in there is both spitting and splitting, while for the atomic kind, it’s just splitting.

Mefatzeach egozim (with the “p” and “f” alternating) is a nutcracker, the object and the famed ballet suite. Likewise, pitzuach can be used also in a more metaphorical vein, as in pitzuach tzofen, breaking a code, or simply solving a question or problem.

The general term for snack foods of this type, including other seeds and nuts, is pitzuchim. While you can get them at a supermarket and other venues, there is a small type of convenience store, often open all night that specializes in these (as well as cigarettes and soft drinks) called a pitzuchiya.

That is they were, until someone in Tel Aviv, as a sort of slangy joke, opened up one called “The Pitzutziya,” using the word pitzutz, which means explosion. This is not an allusion to terror, or anything of the sort, it’s more like how we would say in English that someone attractive is “a bombshell” or, or that business is “booming.” Now, most of these little kiosks – some a little nutty, others just seedy – go by that name.

The booming business

But it does bring us back to “the bomb”: petzatza. As in English, this word can be used metaphorically like the aforementioned sexual “bombshell,” or in phrases like petzatza chachamah, “a smart bomb,” (though technically this should be a “wise bomb,” which sounds even more oxymoronic than a smart one), or petzatza metakteket, “a ticking bomb,” the proverbial example quoted when arguing for the justification of torture of terror suspects for the public good.

The debate around the Iranian nuclear threat centers on the question of haftzatza (“bombing”) or lehaftzitz (infinitive form, again p/f alternating) – “to bomb, or not to bomb.” These roots, p-tz-ch and p-tz-tz are part of a family of ripping, rending or blowing up words that share the letter p-tz in their root. One of the main issues is the different evaluations as to how many wounded, petzu’im (root: p-tz-’ayin) we can expect – on our side, and on theirs. For this and other reasons, while they may not suffer from a split personality, pitzul ishiut, opinions in the government are divided, mefutzalim (root: p-tz-l), about what to do, and this could lead to a pitzutz, blow-up, in the coalition.

Great and terrible days ahead

After exploring the gar’in side of the peril, let’s look at the “threat,” iyum, from the root aleph-y-m. To put this in context, we are entering a season of the year that is known as the Yamim Noraim, usually translated as The Days of Awe, or the High Holidays. Just as in English, “awful” used to mean “full of awe” but now means “terrible”; in contemporary Hebrew, nora, from yirah, “awe,” means “bad.”

But ayom, the adjective form of aleph-y-m, means “really bad,” literally “horrible,” just as a horror film is a seret eymah.

One of the best-known prayers of the holidays is called the “Unetaneh Tokef,” which begins by speaking of the tremendous holiness of the day, for it is nora ve’ayom, “awesome and frightening” (or terrible). The moving liturgical poem reaches its emotional climax when it calls us to imagine our fates over the coming year, asking who will live, who will die, who by fire, and who by water, etc.

The solution there is that repentance, prayer and righteousness can avert severe decrees. While those are probably all good things, perhaps in the world of geopolitics and atom bombs, we may also need cool-headedness, foresight and diplomacy to ward off nuclear devastation, and go back to splitting and spitting our sunflower seeds underneath our vines and fig trees.


Next week: How do you say inside-out, or upside-down, or backward or café au lait? Hebrew has one word for all four of these.

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