Word of the Day / Mishkafayim

If it weren't for a certain teacher from Eastern Europe who knew his Greek, the vision-impaired among us might still be walking around with 'eye houses.'

As long as it takes to make a fine wine, it can take much longer to come up with a fine word for a new invention. In the case of eye glasses, it took Hebrew six centuries to get focused on the word "mishkafaim."

The first Hebrew reference to glasses to come to us dates from 1404, over a century after their invention in Italy. As Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa had told his parishioners in a sermon delivered on February 23, 1306, "It is not yet twenty years since the founding of the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision."

The 1404 reference is found in the dedication to a Bible written by Haim Ben Shaul of Saragossa, in modern-day Spain. “With the hand of god upon me I struggled with ‘glass seers’ between my eyes and wrote him these 42 books, which I completed on the 5,164th year of creation,” he wrote.

Another early reference to glasses in Hebrew appears in a dedication to a prayer book written by Isaac the Scribe in Ulm, modern-day Germany, in 1459. “I am 61 years old and have written this prayer book without ‘glass instruments’ illuminating my eyes, which are called in German Brillen.” Brille to this day is the German word for eyeglasses.

With the flowering of Hebrew writing in the second half of the 19th century a vast array of different two-word phrases were also used in the Hebrew periodicals published in Europe to describe eyeglasses. The most popular of these names were “kley reut’ (“Seeing instruments”) and “Batey Enayim” (“Eye houses”).

In 1890, a teacher from modern-day Belarus called Haim Leiv Hazan thought up of a better name: “Mishkafaim”. He wrote a long article for the Hebrew daily “Hatzfira”, which in those days was published in Warsaw, on the importance of making up new Hebrew words and how these words should be created. At the article’s end he wrote:

“The glass implements we put on our eyes in order to better see, which have been called by many names and in many ways: ‘kley makhaze’, ‘kley reut’, ‘kley re’y’ ‘batey einaim’ - I had thought to call ‘mishkafaim’. No one will deny that it is better to use a single word than a multitude; and the instruments that are made by two equal parts - ‘moznaim’ (“scales”), ‘melkakhaim’ (“tweezers”), and in the Talmud ‘misparayim’ (“scissors”), start with the letter mem and end with the pair-ending “im”; and since this instrument is made up of two equal parts, its structure is well portrayed in that name.”

“But why did I choose the root sh.k.f?” continued Hazan. “I chose it because it is similar to the Greek word skepeo (I will see) that comes in words for seeing instruments in European languages such as telescope, microscope, kaleidoscope, and such.”

During the end of the 19th Century and the early 20th Century the word “mishkafaim” pushed out of the Hebrew lexicon all its predecessors, which are by now totally extinct.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.