Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hebrew Loanwords: Part 1

In previous weeks, we've looked at words that have made their way into the English language from Hindi and Hawaiian. This weekend, it's the turn of yet another "H" language, Hebrew.

Tel Aviv Beach in Israel
The Hebrew language has had quite an interesting history. It began as the language of the ethnic group known as the Hebrews or the Israelites, depending on who you ask. By the year 200, this Semitic language had lost so many speakers that it was no longer an everyday spoken language, instead being used only in relation to Judaism. Hebrew was later revived in the 19th century, and now boasts over 5 million native speakers, most of whom live in Israel, where it is an official language alongside Arabic.

Now that we've given you a brief history of the language, we'd like to share some of our favorite Hebrew loanwords with you. For now, we've decided to focus on terms whose definitions are not necessarily linked with the Jewish faith (such as bar mitzvah or rabbi), but instead on words you may be surprised to find out are from Hebrew.

Brouhaha - There are a couple of theories on where this term meaning "a stir, fuss, or uproar" came from, one being that it came from the Hebrew phrase barukh habba meaning "blessed be the one who comes".

The most famous cherub is likely Cupid, seen here in
Cupid with a Bow, by a follower of painter Guido Reni.
Cherub - In English, this word is mainly used to refer to baby or child angels depicted in works of art. It made its way into English from the Hebrew word kerubh, via Greek cheroub and Latin cherub, and originally meant "winged angel".

Chutzpah - This term, from Hebrew hutspah, traditionally means "gall" or "audacity" and expresses disapproval and even outrage over a person's behavior. One definition even links it to psychopaths. We're not quite sure how, but over the years, American English has been able to turn this negative word into a positive one that describes how wonderfully courageous someone can be.

Jezebel - It's not too often that you see this word for "an immoral woman", though you may have heard of the feminist blog of the same name. It turns out that Jezebel, known in Hebrew as Izebhel, was a powerful Phoenician princess who led the Jews back to idol worship and even killed some of their prophets. She was eventually thrown out a window and left to be eaten by dogs. Not your typical princess story.

Mazel tov - You almost surely knew that this term means "congratulations" or "good luck", but the expression actually comes from the Hebrew term mazzaloth meaning "constellations". Eventually, it became mazzal tob and made its way into English via Yiddish.

We'll be back with some more Hebrew loanwords for you tomorrow!

Read part 2.