Word of the Day / Kaspomat: Psst. Want Some Silver?

Modern Israelis took the ancient word for 'silver' and mashed it with the modern suffix in 'automatic'

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Kaspomat: Takes ancient Semitic word 'kesef' for money and modern suffic 'o-mat' to create: ATM.
Kaspomat: Takes ancient Semitic word 'kesef' for money and modern suffic 'o-mat' to create: ATM.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

The English language has got Laundromat, that combination of “laundry” and “automatic” that has gone from brand name to generic word for a self-service laundry. It also has quite a few lesser known coinages that end in “-o-mat” or “-o-matic,” from the Android photography app Pixlr-o-matic to quirkier o-mats like Art-O-Mat, a project using old cigarette vending machines to dispense art, and Beliefnet’s Belief-O-Matic quiz (“Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, Belief-O-Matic knows”).

But Hebrew has kaspomat (kahs-po-MAHT), the word for an Israeli ATM.

Kaspomat combines that “-o-mat” automation suffix with the Hebrew word for money: kesef, which also means “silver.” (The “p” and the “f” are represented by the same letter in Hebrew.)

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The same root, k-s-f, is used in several other Semitic languages, including Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian and Aramaic, to mean “silver.” “Gods of kesef, or gods of gold, ye shall not make unto you,” the Bible tells us (Exodus 20:19).

Later in Exodus, the word is used to refer to money in a generic sense: “If thou lend kesef to any of my people, even to the poor with thee, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest” (22:24).

This generic meaning can also be seen in Rabbi Shimon’s words of wisdom, cited in the Mishna: “Whoever has the kesef in hand has the upper hand” (“Kol shehakesef beyado, yado al ha’elyona,” Bava Metzia 4:2).

But just because those cash machines are known as ATMs now doesn’t mean it had to be that way.

An October 10, 1969, Time Magazine article about one of the first ATMs tells the amazing tale of “an automatic ‘cash dispenser’” installed outside one of the Bank of America’s branches in San Francisco. This magical machine allowed anyone with a checking account at the bank to withdraw all of $25, “simply by inserting a plastic identification card and punching a code number on a ten-digit keyboard.”

Though that machine was able to dispense cash, it was evidently unable to spit back the card, which was returned to the customer by mail. The headline of that article? “Banking: And Now the Cashomat.”

So close, America, so close. But the O-Mat-O-Meter tells me that kaspomat wins the silver on this one.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.