Word of the Day / Kikioni: The Word People Think Means 'Esoteric'

But it doesn't. God showing Jonah the light after not destroying Nineveh brings us this Hebrew word for 'ephemeral.'

The King James translation uses the word gourd to translate 'kikayon.' Ancho Gosh

The word kikyoni (KIK-yo-ni) is used by most Hebrew speakers to mean weird or esoteric - usually when referring to political parties such as the Green Leaf Party or Eretz Hadasha. Actually however the word means ephemeral - short-lived.

One can understand the confusion - political parties formed ad hoc before elections also tend to be somewhat ephemeral.

The word kikyoni comes from the book of Jonah. After the great fish vomited Jonah onto the beach, the Lord tells him to go back to the Assyrian capital Nineveh and tell its inhabitants they are doomed for their wicked ways.

This time Jonah agrees. (He had ended up in the mammal's belly for refusing the same divine mission in the first place.) He gives the people of Nineveh the bad news: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4)

Happily, the people of the city heeded the prophet and reformed their evil ways. “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9)

This works. God does repent and the city is saved. This doesn’t go over well with Jonah, who realizes his fate is to be known as a false prophet. He leaves the city in despair, sits on a hill overlooking the relieved city and cries “O LORD, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2)

God decides to explain his actions through a miraculous demonstration. As Jonah sits in the blazing desert sun waiting to die “God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad for the gourd.” (Jonah 4:6)

And there you have it. The King James translation uses the word gourd to translate kikayon, a word that appears nowhere else in the bible. Other translators translate it as ivy or circumvented the problem of identifying the phantasmical plant by transliterating kikayon, or simply writing "plant".

At any rate, this plant was short lived because the next day god sent a worm to eat it. Then God approached Jonah and asked if he had been saddened by the death of the kikayon, to which the prophet answers in the affirmative.

“Thou hast had pity on the gourd for which thou hast not labored, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night,” God said to Jonah, revealing the meaning of his parable. “Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons..?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

Thus over the years kikayon became an expression in Hebrew for that “which came up in a night and perished in a night” – in a word, ephemeral. Come the early 20th Century, a writer named Moshe Smilansky coined the expression "kikyoni,” meaning means kikayon-like.

Through a different route the word kikayon entered Hebrew as the name for the castor plant but that’s a story for another day.