Word of the Day / Kakhol: From Ancient Eyeliner to Blue

And it might well have been the only Hebrew word for blue - it isn't - if not for some early Russian immigrants to Palestine.

The Hebrew word for blue is ka-KHOL.

You may be surprised to find out that such a prevalent color appearing in sea and sky goes unnamed in the Hebrew Bible, nor is it mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud.

Nor is Hebrew is not alone in this seeming anomaly. No word for "blue" has been found in ancient Greek either, nor in Sanskrit.

One possible explanation could be as postulated by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. Based on researching roughly 100 human languages, they concluded that the earliest languages had only two words for color: black, encompassing all cold colors; and white, encompassing all warm ones. The first actual color to receive a name, they suspect, was red. Blue, they think, came much later.

What about tekhelet, you ask? Well, while tekhlet in modern Hebrew means "light blue" (like the Russian word goluboy) - in Biblical times it referred to a dye made of a liquid extracted from a kind of sea urchin, which was purple.

Baby has eyeliner on her eyes

So where does kakhol come from? The Bible may not have the word, but it has a hint. Ezekiel asks “For whom thou didst wash thyself, paintedst thy eyes, and deckedst thyself with ornaments?” (23:40)

The original Hebrew for this eye-painting is the verb "kakhalt," which we could be tempted to think means ‘blued’ - but it doesn’t.

The verb kakhalt was borrowed from Akkadian: it comes from the word for antimony, a cosmetic used as eyeliner and better known as kohl.

Hebrew adopted the word from the Akkadian both as a verb as we see in Ezekiel, but also as a noun (this appears in the Mishnah and Talmud).

Nor was Hebrew alone. Many other languages in the region also have a cognate word for ancient eyeliner, including Aramaic.

The arrival of navy blue

Arabic likely adopted the word from the Aramaic, where it was rendered kakhal. (This is the source of the English word kohl.) And some time during the Middle Ages, Arabic formed the word kakhli from it - meaning navy blue.

Based on this Arabic word, and the presence of the root in Biblical Hebrew, Rabbi Zeev Yavetz began to use the word kakhol for blue in Palestine during the late 19th century (his son-in-law David Yellin, one of the main figures in the revival of the Hebrew language, reported as much in an article he wrote in HaTzvi in 1887).

The word kakhol was quickly adopted by the tiny community of Hebrew speakers, which in those days was in the double digits.

Most of these new Hebrew speakers had Russian as their first language. Kakhol was adapted to mean “dark blue,” equivalent to the Russian word siniy, while the light blue of the sky, which in Russian is designated as goluboy - became tekhelet.

Presumably, were they English-speakers or speakers of any other tongue that makes do with one word for blue, Hebrew would have made do with only one blue. But thanks to these early Russian immigrants, we now have the two, kakhol and tekhelet.

By the way, in 1972 a pottery sherd with the inscription “Belonging to Yahzeyahu, kakhal wine” was found. The word has no vowels and thus we cannot know exactly what it is. It was suggested that the word is an adjective referring to a color. This is possible, though it is also likely that kakhal was the name of the wine’s source, probably a town.