Hebrew Words in English You Didn't Even Know You Knew

How Bugs Bunny forever changed the meaning of an ancient Hebrew word and six-winged chimeras morphed into cherubs.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

It's Hebrew Language Week in Israel, which is an apt time to consider Hebrew words you didn't even know you know – because they have become embedded in the English language.

Many originate with the bible, first and foremost amen. In Hebrew it originally meant "true and solid," but today means the same as the English word. Then there's hallelujah, from halleluya, "praise God" and Sabbath, day of rest - which led to sabbatical, year of rest. Those naturally come from the Hebrew name for Saturday - shabbat.

Messiah comes from the Hebrew mashiakh, which means "anointed with oil" - a part of the Israelite coronation rite.

At the other end of the social spectrum are jubilee and thus also jubilation, which originate from word yovel: the year ending a 50-year cycle, at which Hebrew slaves were freed and land purchased was returned to the seller. Scholars suspect this law was never actually observed. But perhaps that's just latter-day chutzpah on their part – which is, yes, another Hebrew word that means "nervy".

What's in a name: Ask Bugs Bunny

Quite a few English words derive from ancient Hebrew names.

Philistine: This has been used to mean "uneducated person" since the 19th century. That use in English originates with a conflict between university academics and the townsfolk of Jena, Germany, in the 17th century, apparently based on the Book of Judges phrase “the Philistines are upon you.” The Philistines - in Hebrew plishtim - were a coastal adversary of ancient Israel whose name simply meant "invaders."

Judas: This Hebrew name has come to mean "traitor" in English, following Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. The name itself is a Hellenized version of the Hebrew Yehuda.

Jezebel: Has come to mean "immoral woman" in English. In the Hebrew Bible, Izevel is Ahab's’ evil Phoenician wife.

Nimrod: This has meant "moron" since the 1940s, before which it meant "mighty hunter," from the name of Nimrod, a biblical character reputed to be a great hunter. For that one can thank Bugs Bunny, who called the inept Elmer Fudd “poor little nimrod.” Fudd’s two attributes – fool and hunter - got confused in the minds of viewers, forever changing the meaning of the word.

Beasts and angels

Biblical lore brings us two giants: behemoth, from the mythical monster behemoth, and leviathan, from a mythical sea monster called livyatan, which in modern Hebrew simply means “whale.” Another set of mythical creatures are the kruvim, with lion or bull bodies, eagle wings and heads of men. Bizarrely, these morphed into cherubs in English.

Another kind of angel is seraph, originating with serafim - according to Isaiah, angels with six wings. And let us not forget Satan, which has become the name of the devil. In the Hebrew Bible the satan is an angelic adviser of God and is not evil per se. Of course, in Iran today it means "the United States" but that's another matter.

Now for something completely different

Shibboleth: English has used shibboleth since the 17th century to distinguish between foreigners and locals by their pronunciation; and since the 19th century, to mean any measure to distinguish between different classes of people. In Biblical Hebrew, shiboleth simply meant “ear of corn” or “torrent of water.” But it appears in a gruesome story in the Book of Judges, in which the Gileadites identified Ephramite refugees fleeing their lost battle by ordering them to say shiboleth. Ephramites couldn’t pronounce the "sh" sound, so anybody who said "siboleth" was put to the sword.

Bedlam: This word, meaning complete disorder, originates with the town of Bethlehem. The meaning "chaos" arose in the 17th century, following earlier use of the word to mean "insane asylum," which in turn arose from a particular insane asylum outside London – the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem. Apropos of which, Bethlehem is a transliteration of the Hebrew name of the town, Beit Lekhem, which probably meant "house of Lachmo" - the Chaldean god of fertility, though lekhem is also Hebrew for bread.

Sodomy: This word for anal copulation derives from the biblical city of Sdom, whose residents, according to the Bible, engaged in homosexual rape.

What isn't kosher

Numerous Hebrew words also migrated into English through Yiddish, following a large emigration of Eastern European Jews to America in the end of the 19th century. These include:

Maven - an expert, from the Hebrew mevin - one who understands.

Meshugga - crazy, from the Hebrew meshuga.

Tush - Yes, this word for buttocks comes from the Hebrew takhat - beneath.

And finally, we have kosher, which means "fit for consumption by an observant Jew" – and has taken the broader meaning of "legitimate." That, coincidentally or not, is the original meaning of the Hebrew word kasher. What apparently isn't kosher is the misconception that the English word "copacetic" originated with the Hebrew phrase "hakol bseder," which means, well, copacetic. That urban legend is apparently not true and in fact nobody has any idea where copacetic originated.

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