Glamour of Grammer: 'And Jubal, his brother'

A word's etymology is as much of an adventure as it is a window in true meaning.

January 15, 2009 12:27
3 minute read.
Glamour of Grammer: 'And Jubal, his brother'

Hebrew Hear-Say logo. (photo credit: )

The study of where words come from is called etymology, 'etimologya' in Hebrew. Though both words ultimately come from the Greek for "true meaning," a word's etymology is as much of an adventure as it is a window in true meaning. Start looking into etymology and you never know where you'll end up. Here are a few examples from the words for musical instruments. The word 'halil' means "flute" in modern Hebrew. It comes from the root 'h'.'l'.'l', denoting variously "to pierce" or "to hollow out," and therefore also things that are pierced or hollowed out. This is where we get the modern Hebrew adjective 'halul', "hollow." In biblical Hebrew, a halil was a wind instrument of some sort, perhaps closer to a modern recorder ('halilit', "little halil"), or perhaps a reed instrument like a clarinet ('klarinet'). Either way, the thinking goes, it was an instrument made by hollowing out a tube. A 'nevel' is a harp, both in modern and ancient Hebrew. It comes from the root 'n'.'b'.'l', and may share etymology with a word of the same sound (therefore also nevel) that meant "flask." Perhaps a bottle-shaped sounding box amplified the sound of the nevel. Here's what's curious. The roots h.l.l and n.b.l, in addition to forming musical instruments, both also create words with highly negative meanings, generally indicating lack of holiness in some regard. From h.l.l we get the biblical verb 'hilel', "to make unholy" or "to profane," and the related word 'halila', often translated "God forbid" and used to describe something terrible. And we get the word 'halal', "slain (person)." These words exist in modern Hebrew as well. Similarly, from n.b.l, we have 'nvela', an animal that died of its own accord, and which, therefore, is not fit to eat. We also get the word 'nvala', another sort of awful thing. In other words, both roots h.l.l and n.b.l give us musical instruments as well as ritually impure things. This is unlikely to be a coincidence, and probably reflects an ancient attitude of ambivalence toward music and instruments. Music was tied up with cultic rituals, and therefore was potentially both awesome and awful. While we're on the topic of harps, it's worth pointing out that there's a word 'kinor', technically not a harp in the Bible but a lyre, according to people who know the difference between the two. (A lyre has a crossbar called a yoke. Or so I'm told.) In modern Hebrew, kinor means "violin." The word kinor lacks any clear etymology, though the Kinneret ("little kinor") seems related. Fourthly, we find the word 'ugav', now a fancy word for "organ" (the musical instrument). In the Bible it was probably a wind instrument of some sort, though opinions vary widely. The root 'ayin'.'g'.'b' has nothing to do with God-awfulness, but it, too, has a meaning seemingly unrelated to music. From ayin.g.b we get the verb 'agav', "to lust." (This is the same root and meaning from which we get 'agvania', "tomato." It's a story for another time.) Perhaps the ugav was used in courtship. The 'keren' was a horn, from the root 'k'.'r'.'n'. That root, in general, has to do with things that start small and get larger. A horn from an animal did just this (at least from the point of view of the person playing the keren - while it was on the animal from which it came, it started large and got smaller). Another thing that starts small and gets bigger is a ray of light, and keren meant that, too. That's why 'karan', the verb from the root, means "shine." Thanks to interest, sums of money also start small and get larger, which is why a third meaning for keren is "interest-bearing account," and, by extension, any fund. Finally for now, one kind of keren was the 'yovel'. Unfortunately, the Latin translation of yovel, based on the Greek, was 'iobileus'. By pure chance, that Latin word sounded like 'iubileus', connected to the Latin verb 'iubilare', "to celebrate." This is why the yovel year from Leviticus, properly the year of blowing the horn, became the "jubilee year," that is, the year of celebration. All of which just proves how much fun music and etymology can be. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.

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