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Philologos

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Judah the Maccabee, Judah the Mace-Man

A modest suggestion for a new way of thinking about the original meaning of the word “Maccabee.”

Dec. 6 2017 12:01AM

Why Does “Making” Mean What It Means for American Ashkenazi Jews?

If you don’t know what it means, you can probably figure it out. (Or you can read this column.)

Nov. 22 2017 12:01AM

No, the Book of Joshua Does Not Tell of a Rare Solar Eclipse

Despite the claim of two recent scientific papers.

Nov. 8 2017 12:01AM

The Famous Israeli Accent, and How It Came About

“I em verry heppy to mit you end yourr femily in yourr hawm.”

Oct. 25 2017 12:01AM

What's a Kvitl, and Why Wish Anyone a Good One?

“A gut kvitl!” East European Jews once said to each other in the days just before and during the holiday of Sukkot, and many still do. What does it mean?

Oct. 10 2017 12:01AM

Rosh Hashanah Greetings, Yiddish-Style

The products of the Yiddish greeting-card industry are a reminder of how wonderfully varied was the world of Yiddish-speaking Jewry.

Sept. 19 2017 12:01AM

The Jewish (and Not-So-Jewish) History of the Word "Palestine"

There’s a lot in this name.

Sept. 6 2017 12:01AM

Did King Solomon Trade with India?

On the possible whereabouts of Ophir and Tarshish, and how to get there by ship from Palestine.

Aug. 24 2017 12:01AM

In the Year of the Small Count

On the once-prevalent practice of rendering Hebrew publication dates by means of numerically coded verses from the Bible.

Aug. 9 2017 12:01AM

Why Are Extremely Large Wine Bottles Named after Biblical Kings?

The convoluted story of jeroboams, rehoboams, methuselahs, and more.

July 19 2017 12:01AM

How Modern Hebrew Developed a Full-Blown Slang in Just a Hundred Years

In part, it borrowed extensively from the slangs and vernaculars of other languages. Consider the case of de la shmatte.

July 5 2017 12:01AM

What Is the Source of the Phrase "Never Again"?

Some say its author was Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League. Is that right?

June 21 2017 12:01AM

Who Is the Biblical Stranger, and What Should the Bible's Teaching Mean Today?

The shifting historical meaning of “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger.”

June 7 2017 12:01AM

Some Yiddish Words Jump into American English Quickly. Others Take Much Longer.

The process results from, in equal measure, Jewish separateness and Jewish assimilation.

May 24 2017 12:01AM

Of Noodge and Nudge, of Slob and Schlub

A look at the phenomenon by which Yiddish words become English words under the influence of other, similar-sounding English words.

May 10 2017 12:01AM

There's No Need to Reclaim the Word “Jew”

Contrary to a Times column, the reason people say “he’s Jewish” rather than “he’s a Jew” has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. It’s just a quirk of grammar, and it’s not unique to Jews.

April 26 2017 12:01AM

Why the Beginning of the Haggadah Is in Aramaic

It’s because of demons.

April 5 2017 12:01AM

The Origins of Foolishness

Where does the Yiddish word narishkayt come from?

March 22 2017 12:01AM

You Didn't Know There Was Another Ahasueros?

Starting in the 16th century, this Ahasueros has personified the legendary figure of the “Wandering Jew,” symbol of the accursed Jewish people. How come?

March 8 2017 12:01AM

Why Yiddish Was Often a Source for Thieves' Slang in European Languages

What we learn from the story of the Russian phrase shakher-makher, or wheeler-dealer.

Feb. 22 2017 12:01AM

The Journey of the Word "Artichoke" Shows Folk Etymology at Its Most Creative

A linguistic investigation prompted by a meal in Rome of carciofi alla giudia.

Feb. 8 2017 12:01AM

How Do You Say "Pirkey Avot" in English?

The title of the Mishnaic tractate is commonly translated as “The Ethics of the Fathers.” But how did it get that name? And could “fathers” actually mean “principles,” and “ethics” mean “sayings”?

Jan. 25 2017 12:01AM

The Variety and Universality of Nicknames

Different languages employ different methods of generating nicknames, but they all satisfy the same two needs: to show special affection and to demonstrate special intimacy.

Jan. 5 2017 12:01AM

Why the Word for Wine Is Similar in So Many Languages

There’s Greek oinos and Hebrew yayin, to say nothing of such farther-flung cognates as Swahili mvinyo and Maori waina. Is there a common root?

Dec. 21 2016 12:01AM

The (Not-So) Jewish Roots of Esperanto

Created by an East European Jew disillusioned with Zionism and Hebrew, the language was meant to unite humanity in a spirit of brotherhood.

Dec. 7 2016 12:01AM

Language Evolves, but Kinship Words Like "Uncle" and "Grandchild" are Surprisingly Durable

Why certain terms having to do with the basics of life are less prone to linguistic change than others.

Nov. 23 2016 12:01AM

How a Hebrew Word Made Its Way into the Speech of a Remote Italian Village

Why are my friend’s Italian neighbors calling a house a bayta?

Nov. 9 2016 12:01AM

The Origins of the Precept "Whoever Saves a Life Saves the World"

And what they tell us about particularism and universalism in Jewish tradition.

Oct. 31 2016 12:01AM

How Jewish Leap Years Came to Be Calculated

The method, developed by the Babylonians and kept alive by medieval Jews, is known in Hebrew as the “secret of impregnation.”

Sept. 28 2016 12:01AM

How Israeli Backpackers Imported an Element of Spanish into Hebrew

What nahagos, the casual term for “driver,” tells us.

Sept. 14 2016 12:01AM

Cupping in Jewish Life and Law

A form of folk medicine now in the news thanks to Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps, cupping has a long history in Judaism.

Aug. 24 2016 12:01AM

How English Words Get Entrenched in Israeli Speech, and How to Get Them Out

Why the Hebrew word for “shaming” (as in “Facebook shaming”) should not be sheyming.

Aug. 10 2016 12:01AM

The False Ideas in the Phrase "Jew by Choice"

Now used to describe converts to Judaism, the term misleadingly suggests that Jewishness inheres more in certain selective beliefs than in Jewish peoplehood.

July 27 2016 12:01AM

Star of David, Star of Solomon, or Star of Sheriff?

How the hexagram became a Jewish symbol.

July 13 2016 12:01AM

How the Books of the Hebrew Bible Got Their Names

Some are named for their first word, others for their first significant word. What about the rest?

June 22 2016 12:01AM

How Did Yiddish Words Make Their Way into German?

A centuries-old tale of complicated, ambivalent, and, sometimes, covertly intimate relationships between a largely anti-Semitic Christian society and its Jewish minority.

June 9 2016 12:01AM

The Gematria of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Fun with Hebrew numbers.

May 25 2016 12:01AM

Where Does the Phrase "Am Yisra’el Ḥai" Come From?

Popular today at weddings and bar-mitzvahs, the words, meaning “the people of Israel lives,” trace all the way back to the story of Joseph.

May 12 2016 12:01AM

How Many Plagues Were There Really in Egypt?

The answer depends on how one punctuates the Bible’s Passover story.

April 20 2016 12:01AM

The Twisting Tale of the Yiddish Term for B----

How a bizarre talmudic passage led to klafte, the derogatory word for an unpleasant woman.

April 6 2016 12:01AM

Who're You Calling a "Zio"?

As news reports from Britain confirm, a new anti-Jewish slur is making the rounds. Where did it come from?

March 23 2016 12:01AM

Looking for Satan in All the Wrong Places

Some think the Devil can be found in the Hebrew Bible. Are they right?

March 9 2016 12:00AM

From "Awesome" to "Awe-Inspiring": How Words Become Devalued

Like animals, words have an ecology. As one is driven out of its traditional habitat, others move into the space that has been vacated.

Feb. 24 2016 12:01AM

Why There Are More Yiddish Idioms in Israeli Hebrew than in American English

By the time Yiddish-speakers arrived in America and pre-state Palestine, English already had a rich vernacular, while Hebrew had none at all.

Feb. 10 2016 12:01AM

Skullcap, Kippah, or Yarmulke?

Three different words for the same Jewish head covering. Are they interchangeable?

Jan. 27 2016 12:01AM

Schlonged?

The great controversy over Donald Trump’s “Yiddish.”

Jan. 13 2016 12:01AM

Is It Asking Too Much to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself?

Romantic, idealistic Christianity says no. Sober, practical Judaism says yes.

Dec. 30 2015 12:01AM

The Bible Says to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. But What Does Neighbor Mean?

The answer hasn’t always been clear.

Dec. 16 2015 12:01AM

The Tree of Knowledge of Positivity and Negativity

How to translate the rabbinic term yetser ha-ra—and how not to.

Nov. 25 2015 12:01AM

Why Is the Beta Israel Term for God Different from the Hebrew Terms for God?

The answer might help uncover the origins of Ethiopian Jewry.

Nov. 11 2015 12:01AM

Who's Right, Me or My Cantor?

My cantor told me the plural for yad, the Hebrew word for Torah pointer, is yadot. I think it’s yadayim. Who’s right?

Oct. 28 2015 12:01AM

Why Does My Family Chant Yiddish-Hebrew Toasts at Celebrations?

“Fire is fire, meat is meat.” But what does it all mean?

Oct. 14 2015 12:01AM

Whatever Happened to Gut Yontif? Why Jews Started Saying Ḥag Same'aḥ

The history of holiday greetings.

Oct. 1 2015 12:01AM

The "Keseh" Conundrum

There are three Hebrew expressions for the days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Two are well-known. The third? No one’s quite sure what it means.

Sept. 16 2015 12:01AM

No, the Lilliputians Didn't Speak Hebrew

It was widely reported this month that a professor in Texas had “decoded” the strange language spoken in Gulliver’s Travels. He did no such thing.

Aug. 26 2015 12:01AM

The Voyage of the Dawn Etymologist

Philologos sets sail to discover the roots of the Yiddish word kayor.

Aug. 12 2015 12:01AM

The Girl with the Yiddish Tattoo

A near-indecipherable tattoo on a woman’s leg helps unravel a mystery surrounding the 1943 anthem of the Jewish resistance.

July 31 2015 12:01AM

What's so Bad about Paganism?

Even in our increasingly post-religious age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Why?

July 15 2015 12:01AM

Are the Origins of "Abracadabra" Jewish?

The first written reference to the magical utterance was in a Roman text. Did it have earlier roots?

July 2 2015 12:01AM

Did Israel's President Really Refer to Reform Judaism as "Idol Worship"?

Or was he mistranslated?

June 17 2015 12:01AM

Why the King James Version of the Bible Remains the Best

The 400-year-old translation is denigrated because of its archaic language. That’s one of its greatest strengths.

May 27 2015 12:01AM

The Paradox of the Transmission of Sacred Texts

Hebrew scribes take great pains to copy faithfully. But, as a passage in Proverbs shows, once an error creeps into the chain of transmission, it can be there forever.

May 13 2015 12:01AM

How to Say You're Welcome in Yiddish and Other Languages

And why we say it at all.

April 30 2015 12:01AM

Which Creatures Made Up the Fourth Plague?

Rabbi Yehudah says lions and bears. Rabbi Nehemiah says hornets and gnats. What does arov really mean?

April 8 2015 12:01AM

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"

It’s not just bad grammar.

March 25 2015 12:01AM

How Lev Tolstoy Became Leo Tolstoy

Why do we Anglicize some names and not others?

March 11 2015 12:01AM

Sorry, NYTimes—There Are Actually Five Hebrew Words for Debate

A common and dismaying misconception.

Feb. 25 2015 12:01AM

Who Kissed/Killed First?

Does the English idiom “kiss of death” come from the story of Judas, or from the Sicilian Mafiaor both?

Feb. 11 2015 12:01AM

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?

Is the tech term, as in computer hacker, connected with the verb hakn, meaning to chop?

Jan. 28 2015 12:01AM

On the Interpretation of Kebabchik

After a friend comes to him with a strange dream, Philologos wonders if the unconscious mind can do Hebrew numerology.

Jan. 14 2015 12:01AM