Sunday, June 9, 2013

Hebrew Loanwords: Part 2

In yesterday's post, we briefly looked at the history of the Hebrew language, as well as introducing you to a few of our favorite Hebrew loanwords that have made it into the English lexicon. Today we're concluding our look at Hebrew with six more interesting loanwords. We've saved the best word for last.

Nimrod holding a fawn.
Messiah - This word has several different meanings depending on which religion you ask. In the Old Testament of the Bible, a messiah was someone who would come to lead and save the Jewish people. Christians, of course, believe that this divine figure has already come, known as Jesus. In any case, the word comes from either the Hebrew term mashiah or Aramaic meshiha, meaning "the anointed". The word eventually became Messias in Greek and Latin before appearing in English.

Nimrod - Historically, Nimrod is a biblical character who was a great hunter. For centuries, the term nimrod was fittingly used to mean "great hunter". Somewhere along the way, the term came to mean a foolish person in American English. Some suggest that this usage originated in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which he calls Elmer Fudd (a foolish hunter), a "poor little Nimrod". Presumably, many viewers didn't know that it was a sarcastic joke about Elmer's hunting skills instead of a fancy term for an idiot. Alas, the Oxford English Dictionary dates the "fool" meaning to at least five years earlier, so perhaps it's not the cartoon's fault.

Pharaoh- The kings of Ancient Egypt were named Par'oh in Hebrew, which became Pharao in Greek and Pharaonem in Latin before making its way into the Old English lexicon as Pharon.

Satan, Sin and Death by English painter William Hogarth
Satan - Surely you've heard of this guy. He's the "supreme evil spirit" in several religions, who tempts humans to do bad things and rules the underworld. The name Satan comes from an identical Hebrew word meaning "adversary" or "one who plots against another". Originally it referred to any angels sent to Earth to obstruct human activity, but eventually evolved into the idea of the being we now refer to as the devil.

Schmooze - When you do this, you're generally engaging in small talk with someone in order to get something from them, like a job or a promotion. The word comes from the Hebrew term shemu'oth meaning "news, rumors", and came to English via the Yiddish shmuesn meaning "to chat".

Schwa - We told you we'd saved the best for last! It turns out that everyone's favorite unstressed mid-central vowel, written [ə] in IPA, comes from the Hebrew word shewa, which literally translates as "emptiness". The English spelling comes from the German word Schwa.

If you know of any interesting Hebrew loanwords into English that we've missed, please let us know in the comments below, and include a definition.