Glamour of Grammar: In search of order

Perhaps because things that are set in order are more easily compared, 'arach' also means "to be like," or "to compare to."

April 23, 2009 12:16
3 minute read.
Glamour of Grammar: In search of order

Hebrew Hear-Say logo. (photo credit: )

The root 'ayin.'resh.kaf', which gives us the verb 'arach' (arrange, set in order or organize), pops up in the most amazing places. Perhaps the oldest and most famous image is 'arach shulhan', "set a table," which we find in Psalm 23: 'ta'aroch l'fanai shulhan', "set a table before me [against my enemies]." The same image appears in the name of the great compendium of Jewish law, the 'Shulhan Aruch', literally the "set table." Articles, columns, and essays are similar to tables in that they can be set in Hebrew. But unlike the English "typesetting," which is part of the physical process of printing, 'arach' in Hebrew means "edit" in this case, and an 'orech' is an "editor," that is, the one who sets the final text of something like an article. Dough, too, can be set in Hebrew, in a process we call "rolling" in English; a "rolling pin" in Hebrew is therefore a 'ma'aroch'. And the law can be set, which is why a "lawyer" in Hebrew is an 'orech din'. Perhaps because things that are set in order are more easily compared, 'arach' also means "to be like," or "to compare to." This usage, too, began in the Bible, as in Psalm 89: 'mi bashahak ya'aroch'... (Who in heaven is like God?). And perhaps because comparison is one way of establishing relative worth, the noun 'erech' means "value," both in the monetary and moral senses. And then, through metonymy (using a word to denote something related to the word), 'erech' came to mean not just the value of a thing but also thing of value itself. So 'arach' migrated in meaning from "order" to "set" to "array" to "compare" to "value." We see the last meaning in the 'hiph'il' verb 'he'erich', which means "to value," and also "to estimate" in the sense of "to suppose." The related noun 'ta'arucha' is an exhibition, usually of art, because the art in such a show is generally arranged in an orderly fashion. The somewhat rare word 'ma'arochet' refers to a natural state of things, which in some cases is a constitution. And like "constitution" in English, the word is a synonym for 'huka', the basic legal code of a country. Another noun from the same root, 'ma'arach', refers more generally to things that are ordered. We might say "plan" or "array" in English. The Hebrew, like the English "formation," also refers to military matters. And in addition to organized things and organized soldiers, the Hebrew word 'ma'arach' connotes organized labor. That's why the Israeli party we call (well, called) "Labor" in English is 'ma'arach' in Hebrew. Similar in nature, and much more widespread, is the noun 'ma'aracha': "system," that is, things that are systematically arranged. By itself, the word can be an act of a play, a battle arena or even a war. In combination, the word gets pronounced 'ma'arechet', "system of." (This is 'smichut', the noun form in Hebrew that includes "of.") And that's confusing, because there's also a non-'smichut' word 'ma'arechet'. 'Ma'arechet', in addition to meaning "editorial group," is essentially the same as 'ma'aracha'. For example, 'ma'arechet hashemesh' is the "system of the sun," which we call the solar system in English. It comes from the word 'ma'aracha', but to judge from appearances it could also come from 'ma'arechet'. Similarly, 'ma'arechet limudim', "system of study," is the closest Hebrew has to "curriculum." On top of all that, 'ma'aracha' means "phylum," that is, the biological subdivision of "kingdom," ('mamlacha' in Hebrew) which in turn gets further divided into "class" ('mahlaka') and so forth. The word 'ma'arechet' also means "stereo system," in part reflecting the elements of the setup that have to be organized properly: the receiver, the wires, the speakers and so forth. "To vote" in Hebrew is 'l'hatzbi'a', literally, "to finger" or "to point." But "to vote" can also be 'livhor', literally "to choose," which is why when elections are held in Israel (and when aren't they?), they're called 'b'hirot', "choices," or "choosings." But the whole election process is called 'ma'arechet b'hirot', the system of choosing. So, perhaps ironically, hidden in the Hebrew phrase for the Israeli electoral process is the root for "order." Who would have thought? The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.

Related Content