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.
Amid the familiar clutter of vowels and cantillation marks, a few strange dots appear. They have no obvious function, and yet they go back thousands of years. Their purpose is . . .
Variations of Hebrew’s misken, meaning “poor” or “unfortunate,” can be found from Italian to Swahili to Tagalog and far beyond.
What you notice when returning to your native country after many years away: everyone starts sentences with “So” and ends them with a question mark.
Before becoming linked to the famous architect who was trying to escape it, the German word mies (rotten) made its way from Hebrew, to Yiddish, to a thieves’ argot called Rotwelsch.
Anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists, look away!
Not packaged, not square, not oven-baked: that’s what it wasn’t. But what it was and where the name for it comes from is still something of a mystery.
It’s part of a trend away from names that once projected clear identities (Workers’ Party) and toward the politics of advertising (There Is a Future).
Take, for instance, the word tararam, meaning—what else?—“fuss” or “hullabaloo.”
There were many more illiterate Jews in the Tsarist empire than we tend to think there were.
A Mosaic reader was able to solve the mystery of the Yiddish expression tapn a vant, “to grope a wall.”
From Hebrew to Spanish to German to Italian and onward, the term is now as international as Coca-Cola.
A chance to help our language expert.
The many hypothesized sources for the saying, “To have butter on one’s head.”
It is practically impossible to utter a complete sentence in Hebrew that lacks gender.
It sounds less mercenary—which is probably also why real coins eventually gave way to chocolate ones.
It probably started with the term “Holocaust survivor.”
The tale of the pupik.
A recent archaeological discovery in Jerusalem reminds us that Jews once bore names like Antigonus, Aristobulus, and, possibly, Daedalus.
It could suggest a different story about the creation of the world.
A tip from a Mosaic reader helps pin down what the great diarist was up to on the day of his famous synagogue visit.
*What worship service did the great diarist Samuel Pepys actually witness?
At least one of them might stem from the days when Jews ululated.
For Judaism, the outward life of religious behavior comes first.
A country of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze all speaking Hebrew as their native tongue? For anyone genuinely interested in Israel’s welfare, it would be a dream come true.
Philologos is quite certain the words of the prayer are in German, not Yiddish. But beyond that?
The hidden roots of the Yiddish-American expression “to shep nakhes.“
The curious case of Agendath Netaim, which the half-Jewish Leopold Bloom spends a whole day considering.
Medieval and modern Hebrew are unusually rich in abbreviations, but in a manner that is the reverse of English.
The origins of two strange names for French villages that are now suburbs of Paris.
Of shlukh and shlokh.
“If there is no overriding reason for the Major to retain an awkward-sounding German name that our people finds hard to pronounce, . . . he [should] change it to a Hebrew one.”
Figuring out the right way to characterize Pharaoh’s heart.
Which language was patient zero for the old expression, “We’ve been smallpoxed and measled”?
But not Philologos.
A strange new case of linguistic evolution.
Despite the silly claims of two computer scientists.
In Hebrew, Arabic, English, German, or any other language, taboo words are curious things.
The story of the biblical word b’liya’al.
It’s not why you think.
A modest suggestion for a new way of thinking about the original meaning of the word “Maccabee.”
If you don’t know what it means, you can probably figure it out. (Or you can read this column.)
Despite the claim of two recent scientific papers.
“I em verry heppy to mit you end yourr femily in yourr hawm.”
“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?
The products of the Yiddish greeting-card industry are a reminder of how wonderfully varied was the world of Yiddish-speaking Jewry.
There’s a lot in this name.
On the possible whereabouts of Ophir and Tarshish, and how to get there by ship from Palestine.
On the once-prevalent practice of rendering Hebrew publication dates by means of numerically coded verses from the Bible.
The convoluted story of jeroboams, rehoboams, methuselahs, and more.
In part, it borrowed extensively from the slangs and vernaculars of other languages. Consider the case of de la shmatte.
Some say its author was Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League. Is that right?
The shifting historical meaning of “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger.”
The process results from, in equal measure, Jewish separateness and Jewish assimilation.
A look at the phenomenon by which Yiddish words become English words under the influence of other, similar-sounding English words.
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.
It’s because of demons.
Where does the Yiddish word narishkayt come from?
Starting in the 16th century, this Ahasueros has personified the legendary figure of the “Wandering Jew,” symbol of the accursed Jewish people. How come?
What we learn from the story of the Russian phrase shakher-makher, or wheeler-dealer.
A linguistic investigation prompted by a meal in Rome of carciofi alla giudia.
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”?
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.
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?
Created by an East European Jew disillusioned with Zionism and Hebrew, the language was meant to unite humanity in a spirit of brotherhood.
Why certain terms having to do with the basics of life are less prone to linguistic change than others.
Why are my friend’s Italian neighbors calling a house a bayta?
And what they tell us about particularism and universalism in Jewish tradition.
Who or what was Azazel?
The method, developed by the Babylonians and kept alive by medieval Jews, is known in Hebrew as the “secret of impregnation.”
What nahagos, the casual term for “driver,” tells us.
A form of folk medicine now in the news thanks to Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps, cupping has a long history in Judaism.
Why the Hebrew word for “shaming” (as in “Facebook shaming”) should not be sheyming.
Now used to describe converts to Judaism, the term misleadingly suggests that Jewishness inheres more in certain selective beliefs than in Jewish peoplehood.
How the hexagram became a Jewish symbol.
Some are named for their first word, others for their first significant word. What about the rest?
A centuries-old tale of complicated, ambivalent, and, sometimes, covertly intimate relationships between a largely anti-Semitic Christian society and its Jewish minority.
Fun with Hebrew numbers.
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.
The answer depends on how one punctuates the Bible’s Passover story.
How a bizarre talmudic passage led to klafte, the derogatory word for an unpleasant woman.
As news reports from Britain confirm, a new anti-Jewish slur is making the rounds. Where did it come from?
Some think the Devil can be found in the Hebrew Bible. Are they right?
Like animals, words have an ecology. As one is driven out of its traditional habitat, others move into the space that has been vacated.
By the time Yiddish-speakers arrived in America and pre-state Palestine, English already had a rich vernacular, while Hebrew had none at all.
Three different words for the same Jewish head covering. Are they interchangeable?
The great controversy over Donald Trump’s “Yiddish.”
Romantic, idealistic Christianity says no. Sober, practical Judaism says yes.
The answer hasn’t always been clear.
How to translate the rabbinic term yetser ha-ra—and how not to.
The answer might help uncover the origins of Ethiopian Jewry.
My cantor told me the plural for yad, the Hebrew word for Torah pointer, is yadot. I think it’s yadayim. Who’s right?
“Fire is fire, meat is meat.” But what does it all mean?
The history of holiday greetings.
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.
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.
Philologos sets sail to discover the roots of the Yiddish word kayor.
A near-indecipherable tattoo on a woman’s leg helps unravel a mystery surrounding the 1943 anthem of the Jewish resistance.
Even in our increasingly post-religious age, “pagan” remains for most people a derogatory word. Why?
The first written reference to the magical utterance was in a Roman text. Did it have earlier roots?
Or was he mistranslated?
The 400-year-old translation is denigrated because of its archaic language. That’s one of its greatest strengths.
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.
And why we say it at all.
Rabbi Yehudah says lions and bears. Rabbi Nehemiah says hornets and gnats. What does arov really mean?
It’s not just bad grammar.
Why do we Anglicize some names and not others?
A common and dismaying misconception.
Does the English idiom “kiss of death” come from the story of Judas, or from the Sicilian Mafia—or both?
Is the tech term, as in computer hacker, connected with the verb hakn, meaning to chop?
After a friend comes to him with a strange dream, Philologos wonders if the unconscious mind can do Hebrew numerology.