Having words, calling names

Vain people, take care not to have infusions in visible veins

Cut letters from newspapers and magazines (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Cut letters from newspapers and magazines (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
THERE IS a double entendre in the headline, but that will come later. Meanwhile, we begin, as promised with the highest rank in the Israel Defense Forces, Rav Aluf – the rank of the IDF’s chief of staff.
As we wrote in our previous column, Rav in the Tanah, the Hebrew Bible, means very great in number, or in strength; and in a title it is used for the man in charge.
What about the word aluf ? This is a word with a number of meanings
In modern Hebrew, the first meaning which springs to mind is a high military rank. Aluf in that sense stands for major-general in other armies, the second highest rank in the Israel Defense Forces. It usually is held by heads of geographic commands, of the air force and the navy, as well as commander of general staff services, such as intelligence. Rav-Aluf is thus the chief of staff, and the rank carried is equal to Lieutenant-General.
Based on the rank aluf, a series of lesser ranks are made using an additional sgan-aluf = Lieutenant-Colonel; and so on up the ladder. For the benefit of English-speaking parents or grandparents of Israeli soldiers who want to know equivalencies and the entire military hierarchy, google “Israel Defense Forces ranks.”
The word aluf in the sense of leader or commander has Biblical precedents. The “chiefs” of the tribes who are descendants of Esau bear the title aluf (Genesis 36:40- 43). Another translation is “leader.”
The second modern meaning is “champion.” And a third. The same word, aluf , can also mean “beloved,” or “dear person.” Let’s leave the why for professional etymologists.
Pronounced the same way, vain describes a person overly concerned with the way he/she looks. But an ugly vain person may seek beauty in vain (unsuccessfully). Both “vain” and “in vain” stem from the Latin word vanus, which means empty, hence useless. Does that work for you?
Vein means the vessels or tubes in your body that return blood to the heart, while its opposite is artery – tubes that carry the pumped renewed blood from the heart into all parts of the body. Because the word vein was well known, miners used the words for a long strip of metal, such as gold. In a similar vein, then came to mean, speaking about a similar subject. Vane, as in weather vane, stems from the Old English fana, meaning a flag. (Compare to the German word for flag: die Fahne, used in the infamous Horst Wessel Nazi anthem.)
We referred in a past column to Rabbi Robert Layman and received a warm response on the etymology of the name Layman (originally Lejman in Lomza, Poland).
He also wrote that his sense of humor made it possible for him not to resent comments on “the oxymoronic character” of being both Rabbi and Layman. Bravo!
Then we received this very interesting email from Dr. Norman Morrison of Cape Town, South Africa. The first sentence did not make me blush!
“I simply loved your page in The Jerusalem Report dated January 8, 2018. My late father Dr. Benzion Morrison (who served with Gen. [Edmund] Allenby as a medical surgeon in the liberation of Palestine) gave me my love for words. He published a book called “Wonderful Words,” which dealt with all of the polarisms that appear in the Chumash [Five Books of Moses].
A polarism is a pair of words derived from the same root that have antithetical meanings. An example in English would be the pair of words bleach and black that have a common root. Another example would be the word cleave, as in my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, and Solomon threatened to cleave the child in two...”
Many thanks to Dr. Morrison. We really appreciate the word polarism. To me, the most astounding case of a word meaning something and its opposite is the Hebrew word hesed. To those familiar with Hebrew, the word has a totally positive connotation, mostly translated as “loving-kindness,” the concept being an “overwhelming good deed or good act or occurrence.” Yet in Leviticus (Vayikra) 20:17, the same word hesed is used to describe a forbidden act of incest. This time the word is translated as “a disgrace,” or “shameful disgrace, wicked act,” and so on.
The reader who wants to know more about this strange polarism can refer to Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik citing Maimonides, in the book “Out of the Whirlwind.” For another view, see Nelson Glueck’s “Hesed in the Bible.”
Dr. Morrison also gave the Afrikaans translation for “I shall not want” (Psalm 23), which means: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not come (up) short.” That is “nothing will be lacking.”
Now to leave with a laugh, in Yiddish, as spoken by Litvaks, veynen means to cry, to shed tears. It is pronounced as in the English vain with -en tacked on. But the Litvaks also pronounced voynen (to dwell, to live at) in the same way, which is “to cry”; in other words, “Vu voynts du” in standard Yiddish became “Vu veynst du.” That could mean “Where do you live?” and “Where do you cry?”
To obviate the error, some Litvaks would say: “Vu lakhts du?” that is, “Where do you laugh?” – a clever way to actually say, “Where do you live?”
We hope you understand this verbal shift, and that all I have written in this vein was not in vain.
Yedidya P. Alavras is a wordsmith who resides in Jerusalem and can be reached at jerusalemreport@gmail.com