Who Put the Coal in Coalition?

Backward: On Language

By Phil O’Lologous

Published March 04, 2009, issue of March 13, 2009.

When people ask me, “Who put the fun in fundamentalism?” I always answer that it was a little-known 14th-century Sufi Pir named Sayyid Jalal al-din Husayn Bukhari.

More to the point this month is who put the fundamentalists in power, and, in the wake of the fractious Israeli elections, a Mr. Will Tiberias Shatner of Montreal wrote to ask what might be the provenance of the word “coalition.”

Although the shared characteristics of unpleasant tarry stickiness, a reappearance of long-dead creatures and formation under pressure make it tempting to think that it derives from “coal” (itself from the Indo-European “col” related to the proto-Ugaritic “kol” that gives us the Hebrew “chol,” meaning the white hair that sticks out of old kibbutznik shirts), that would be entirely incorrect.

For further information I consulted my 20-volume “Alexander Harkavy Dictionary of English, Yiddish, Hebrew and Party-Hosting Tips.” The butternut squash canapes were a smash hit, but I remained unenlightened on the roots of “coalition.” I thus turned, on the advice of my good friend Professor Urmond von Straumsang, to the 40-volume “Oxford Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Ur-Altaic and Asian Flower Arranging.” Still nothing except a lovely idea of what to do with two pieces of bamboo shoot and a lotus flower.

Deciding to take a risk, I ventured to the on-line to see how the webnet might boost my resources, and I was happy I did. Apparently “coalition” (or rather the Hebrew “ko’alitzia”) is an example of a portmanteau word (like “brunch” from “breakfast” and “lunch” noted in Punch’s August 1896 edition) coming from contracting the addition of Galitzia (a formerly Jewish area of Poland) to Kol Isha (the Talmudic prohibition against listening to women).

So, Mr. Shatner, the answer to your question is that a coalition may not be as inflammable as you suspect, but it’s nevertheless the sort of sticky situation that comes about if you don’t listen to women and rather put your trust in a group of men from Eastern Europe.

Questions for Phil O’Lologous should be addressed to fyvush.finkel@backward.com



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