Word of the Day / Tatran: Word for 'Can't Smell' That Arose From a Fishy Passage in Talmud

Or: If a woman can't smell a radish in the Galilee, is that grounds for annulment?

Images from Dreamstime.com

One who can’t see is blind; one who can’t hear is deaf; but what do you call one who can’t smell? You may be forgiven for not knowing the word is “anosmic” - it is a rare word for a rare condition.

In Hebrew on the other hand, the word for anosmic is quite well known - it is tat-RAN, but only by mistake.

The word tatran begins its story with a single passage in the Talmud. In Baba Bathra 146a, the rabbis are discussing what should be done with property when a marriage is annulled. Rabbi Judah says he heard from Rabbi Abba Arika that once a man was told his wife was a tatranith.

So, the Talmud says, “he followed her into a ruin to test her. He told her 'I smell a radish in the Galilee.'” To which the wife in the story responds “Would that one gave me of the dates of Jericho and I would eat with it.” At this point we are told, “The ruin fell upon her and she died.”

The rabbis agree that he can inherit from her, even though had she failed the test and lived, their marriage would be annulled. (a man who discovered a defect in his wife he didn't know about before can void the union).

Based on this story, over the ages it was generally agreed that the defect tatranith meant “anosmic.” But this doesn't really make sense. For one thing, you don't have to be anosmic not to be able to smell a radish in another county, nor does her answer have anything to do with smell. In general one suspects that the story was garbled by scribes.

Still, the word stuck, and gained acceptance during the Middle Ages. And for a last little factoid: tatran is also generally the last word in a Hebrew dictionary.