Word of the Day / Kartziya: The Modern Word for Tick That Arose From a Rabbinical Digression

And a mistake in pronunciation, because nobody cared about the insect or how to say its name.

Tick (Dreamstime.com)
Hebrew had no word for 'tick,' so an agricultural magazine helped itself to an obscure word from Talmud meaning 'large fly,' not that anybody cared. Dreamstime.com

When someone is pestering you and won't let you be, you may say he is a kar-tzi-YA, which means "tick." As in the parasitic insect. The term has even spawned a verb in the past few decades, lehitkaretz (or lehitkartzetz), meaning roughly “to cling annoyingly.”

So where does this word come from? Well, the Talmud, and a mistake.

In Tractate Gittin 86b, the rabbis are discussing divorce. Towards the end of the folio they discuss cases in which a woman should leave her husband. At some point, Rabbi Johanan weighs, in saying: ”In neither case need she leave,” and then continues that - and I have no idea what this has to do with the discussion up to that point - “and the karzith in the stacked corn does not spoil the water of purification.”

The rabbis seem to not notice the odd segue and move on to discussing the "karzith," which is not mentioned again in the Talmud, or anywhere else for that matter.

Not surprisingly, therefore, not everyone knows what this "karzith" is, so the Talmud helpfully asks: “What is a karzith?” and an explanation by Rabbi Abaye is provided: “The large fly found among the stacks.”

With the identity of the karzith settled, the discussion passes onto whether pigeon or karziths spoil the water of purification or not and whether their size has any effect on this. Eventually they get back on topic and discuss divorce again.

The mysterious bug

As we said, this word karzith wasn’t used over the ages. Scholars didn’t know what it was and apparently didn’t care. Even Rashi, who was often quite cavalier with his guesses in such cases, didn’t have a stab at it.

The word might have stayed forever forgotten in the Talmud and dictionaries where it was defined as “a large fly” a-la Rabbi Abaye, but one day in 1921, the editors of “HaSadeh,” a Hebrew journal of agriculture, needed a word to describe ticks plaguing the chickens of Palestine. Not finding a Hebrew word for “tick,” they used “kartzith.” It wasn’t in use anyhow and was fitting, as the root K-R-TZ means to bite and cut in most Semitic languages.

From “Hasadeh” kartzith spread, through usually in the plural form kartziyot, since people don’t usually discuss a single tick. For this reason, in the 1940s, when people did start talking about ticks in the single form, they mistakenly created kartziya, a word that is technically wrong but is today far more common than the correct kartzith.

In the mid-1970s the word kartziya entered use as an insult meaning “annoying pest” as an article in Ma’ariv from 1974, shows: “A bus conductor that treated passengers including Sgt. Shemuel Kermerman rudely, apparently likes the expression ‘kartziya.’ He used it to insult the sergeant, who reprimanded him for his behavior."