Etymology of Modern Hebrew Words
Almost all Hebrew words are built upon root letters called a shoresh (שורש, “root”), and are formed in such ways where small manipulations can create many different but related meanings. For example, the words “letter” and “write” have no base connection in English. However, in Hebrew, michtav (מכתב, “letter”) and kotev (כותב, “write”) derive from the same shoresh, כ-ת-ב (k-t-v).
Eliezer Ben Yehuda and poet Judah Leib Gordon are credited with much of this revival of Modern Hebrew, which offers the opportunity to explore this rich language.
The Hebrew word for “apple” is tapuach (תפוח) and the word for “golden” is zahav (זהב). When you combine them, you have tapuz (תפוז), which is the word for orange. Oranges likely first made their way to Israel in Talmudic times, and were known as “sweet, round etrogs.” The etrog was the citrus that was most commonly known to ancient Jews, and it’s interesting to see how this was used as the early framing for the introduction of the orange.
Parat Moshe Rabeinu (פָּרַת מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנו)
The Hebrew word for ladybug literally translates to “Moses’ cow.” Why? In other languages, the ladybug is named so to commemorate leading religious figures (for example, in English “lady” is a reference to Mary). Following this concept, the Jews wanted to use a prominent, religious figure as well, so Moses was chosen. As for the “cow,” it’s likely drawing on the comparison between the spots of a ladybug and spots of a cow. And so, we have Parat Moshe Rabeinu, Moses’ Cow!
Gamal Shlomo (גְּמַל שְׁלֹמֹה)
Like the ladybug, the word for praying mantis can’t be found in the Bible. So modern Hebrew linguists needed to create a word for it. According to folklore, the name is inspired by a folktale where King Solomon became so angry at his camel that he turned it into an insect. Hence, King Solomon’s Camel.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda and poet Judah Leib Gordon were both well-versed in the Bible, and often drew on passages for inspiration when coming up with modern words. Electricity is one of these examples. The word chashmal can be found in a verse in Ezekiel (1:4) which describes a type of godly power or energy.
Glidah comes from the Aramaic word for “frost.” The ג-ל-ד (g-l-d) root can be found in the Bible, and is similar sounding to the Italian word for ice cream, “gelato.”
Other examples include:
Bacteria: Chaidak (חַיְדַק)—small + life
Musical: Machazemer (מַחֲזֶמֶר = מַחֲזֶה + זֶמֶר)—play + song
In one column, list out all the previously mentioned Hebrew words (i.e., תפוח). In another column, list out all of the English translations (i.e., apple). Prior to seeing the breakdown of the aforementioned words, play a matching game. Did they know to match “golden” and “apple” together to form “orange?” How did they come to form the words that they did?
Provide everyone with a list of fake, futuristic inventions that don’t yet have a name (for example, a combination of toothbrush and floss, computer with a built-in printer, a watch that makes video calls, etc.). Have each participant use any Hebrew combination of words to create a name for this new invention. Following a presentation of their ideas, enjoy the discussion!
Take a look at any selection of Biblical passages in both Hebrew and English. If you were Eliezer Ben Yehuda, and there was no Hebrew word for many modern items (i.e., computer or telephone or automobile), how would you use these passages to create a new Hebrew word?
What words do we use in everyday English that draw upon Hebrew or Yiddish? Did you know the word shrek is Yiddish for “fear”?