Word of the Day / Ofanaim - Bicycle

How Ben Yehuda created a modern Hebrew word for the humble 2-wheeled vehicle using biblical Hebrew.

The bicycle was invented sometime in the first half of the 19th century, though by whom, where and when is disputed. By definition, therefore, there was no word in ancient Hebrew for this two-wheeled contraption: nothing in the Bible or in other later rabbinical texts.

It was up to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, reviver of Hebrew, to come up with a word.

The modern English-language term "bicycle" originated with the French, who called the device both velocipede and bicyclette. That in turn had originated with ancient Greek, in fact three ancient Greek words: "bi" – the prefix for two; "cycle," the word for wheel, which originated with the Greek word "kuklos" - "circle."

Ironically, today the French have abandoned the bicyclette or anything like it and reverted to referring to the two-wheeled propulsion machine as a velo.

Meanwhile, over here Ben-Yehuda created the Hebrew word for bicycle - of-a-na-IM - by taking the biblical word for wheel, o-FUN, and adding the suffix for pairs, a-IM.

This suffix a-IM (pronounced iyim) appears in innumerable words involving pairs, such as ey-na-IM (eyes – most animals have two of them), mich-na-sa-IM (trousers – they have two legs), mis-pa-ra-IM (scissors – two blades), mish-ka-fa-IM (glasses – two lenses, one for each eye), and so on.

Anyway, the word ofanaim first appeared in one of Ben-Yehuda’s newspapers, Hahashkafa, in 1903. Five years later it appeared in the first volume of his dictionary published in 1908, where he described it as “A machine on two wheels that a man rides and propels with his legs that moves very fast.”

By the way, Hebrew doesn’t have a suffix for three things. Thus a tricycle in Hebrew is called a tlat-o-FUN, using the Hebrew prefix “tlat” for three-part, which is taken from Aramaic.