Noahide Pause

By Philologos

Published August 15, 2007, issue of August 17, 2007.
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Irwin Mortman writes: “I have been trying to determine why the suffix ‘ide’ was added to the name Noah to create the adjective ‘Noahide.’ I need the answer to this query since I will be moderating a class where the ‘Noahide laws’ will be discussed, and I am sure someone will ask me why a suffix used in chemistry has been used to construct ‘Noahide.’ I have checked ‘A Dictionary of Prefixes, Suffixes, and Combining Forms From Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.’ It shows that the only use of the suffix ‘-ide’ is in chemistry, as in ‘oxide’…. Although the Oxford English Dictionary has ‘Noachide,’ along with ‘Noachian’ and ‘Noachic,’ it has no explanation for the suffix.”

Since nobody, I least of all, wants Mortman to be embarrassed in front of his class, I am rushing this answer into print.

First, however, let me explain the term “Noahide laws” for those who are not familiar with it. Known in Hebrew, from which it derives, as sheva mitzvot b’nei Noah, “the seven commandments of the sons of Noah,” this term refers in rabbinic tradition to a core number of basic things that non-Jews, though not subject to the 613 commandments of the Torah, are expected to abstain from. These are idolatry, incest, murder, theft, unethical business practices or dealings with others, blasphemy and the eating of any part of a live animal. (One way of preserving meat in ancient times was to cut off only the limb intended to be eaten that day.) Since the entire human race, according to the Bible, descends from Noah, whose family alone survived the Flood, the Noahide Laws are the universal laws of morality pertaining to all humanity.

And now to get back to Mortman’s question: He is quite right that, apart from its appearance in Noahide, the suffix “-ide” is used in English only in chemistry, in such words as oxide (a compound of oxygen), bromide (a compound of bromine), sulfide (a compound of sulfur) and so on. Indeed, despite its Latinate sound, “ide” is the early 19th-century coinage of French chemists, who originally combined oxygène and acide to invent the word oxacyde, later shortened to oxyde, in order to name such acidic oxygen compounds as hydrogen peroxide. In English this became “oxide,” and the suffix was soon applied to other compounded elements.

The descendants of Noah are clearly not a chemical compound. Where, then, does the “-ide” of Noahide come from? Although the gargantuan “Oxford English Dictionary” does not, as Mortman correctly asserts, give us the answer, it does give us a hint if we read its definitions carefully. Here they are:

Noachian: Of or relating to the patriarch Noah or his time.”

Noachic: Of or pertaining to Noah; Noachian.”

Noachid or Noachide: A descendant of Noah.”

This dictionary even gives the term “The Noachick [sic] precepts,” first documented from 1773, in the sense of what are today called “the Noahide laws.” But note the difference between its definitions of “Noachian” and “Noachic” and its definition of “Noachid” or “Noachide.’ And if you haven’t gotten the hint yet, reflect once again on the original rabbinic expression sheva mitzvot b’nei Noah — the seven commandments of the sons of Noah.

You still don’t get it? Then open your Greek copy of “The Odyssey” to Book II, line 158, which is the first place in Homer’s epic in which the usage occurs, and read: Toisi dè kai metéeipe géron héros Halithérses Mastorides — or in plain English, “Then among them spoke the old hero Halitherses, son of Mastor.” There are, that is, different ways in classical Greek of saying “son of,” and one of them is to add the suffix “-ides” to the name of the father. Nor is this a Greek custom alone. Every time we speak of the great Jewish rabbis Maimonides — that is, [Moses] the son of Maimon, or Nachmanides, that is, [Moses] the son of Nachman — we are availing ourselves of it.

The Greek plural of –ides is –idae and “sons of Mastor” would be Mastoridae; this is an ending highly common in zoological terminology, so that in the family of beetles, for example, we have the Scarabaeidae (the “sons” or different species of the scarab beetle), the Staphylinidae, the Buprestidae, the Anthicidae, the Tenebionidae, etc. And from late Latin, which adopted and shortened the –idae form to –ida, we get such English words as arachnid, a member of the spider (arachne in Greek) family, or hominid, a member of the primate family of Hominidae (of which homo sapiens is the sole survivor). And from this also came, in the 19th century (the Oxford dictionary’s first reference to it dates from 1856), Noachid or Noahid — a member of the family of Noah.

Why, then, did Noahid morph into Noahide? (The Oxford dictionary, as we have seen, gives both forms, the first being the older.) Here, we are probably back to chemistry. That is, since by the 20th century, the chemical “-ide” was a better-known suffix than was the genealogical “-id,” People began to pronounce “Noahid” as “Noahide.” It just happened, without any intention on anyone’s part to compare the sons of Noah to chemical compounds.

And if all this doesn’t put Irwin Mortman’s class to sleep, I can’t imagine what would.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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