By Philologos

Published October 21, 2005, issue of October 21, 2005.
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llan E. Mallenbaum from Plainview, N.Y., inquires:

“Have you ever delved into the etymology of the Yiddish word arbes, referring to the cooked chickpeas seasoned with ground pepper that my northern Polish grandmother served to guests (like me) many (many) decades ago? I can see possible cognates in Spanish garbanzo and Greek erebinthos. I can also visualize the Italian ceci and English ‘chickpea’ deriving from Latin cicer. On the other hand, the contemporary Hebrew word hummus seems seriously out of the picture. Would you care to clarify the linguistic heritage of this ancient legume?”

I must say that, although I have heard arbes used by some Yiddish speakers to refer to chickpeas, I myself remember hearing chickpeas called nahit, whereas arbes in the Yiddish my father spoke to my grandmother simply meant ordinary peas. This seems to be the case with many Yiddish speakers, and I wonder what other word Mr. Mallenbaum, and others like him, would use for peas.

I also wonder where the linguistic dividing line between nahit and arbes ran. Since nahit is a Russian word that derives from Turkish nohut, whereas arbes is a cognate of the German erbse, “peas” (chickpeas in modern German are Kichererbse), it may be that this line corresponded to the boundary between Russian-and-Ukrainian-speaking as opposed to Polish-speaking Eastern Europe (my own family came from Belarus) — but this is only a guess. What arbes and nahit eaters have in common is the pepper: Sprinkled with lots of it, boiled chickpeas, especially if still warm from the pot, make a first-rate snack or cocktail food.

In any case, Mr. Mallenbaum’s surmises about garbanzo, erebinthos, cicer, ceci and “chickpea” are all correct, our English word being immediately descended from French chichepois. Latin cicer, from which come chiche, ceci, the Kicher- of Kichererbse, and words for “chickpea” in other European languages, is itself a spin-off of Latin cicatrix, which has the primary meaning of “scar” and the secondary one of a vegetative indentation. Chickpeas are indented from their apex to their bottom in a fold dividing them in half; hence their Latin name.

Latin also has the word ervum, meaning “vetch,” a member of the family of legumes to which the chickpea and true pea also belong. Ervum is related to both Greek erebinthos and Spanish garbanzo (an older form of which was arvanço), as well as to German Erbse from old German araweiz. Whether the original Indo-European word from which these all come referred to chickpeas or to something else, the chickpea was one of the earliest cultivated vegetables; 7,500-year-old remnants of it have been found in the Middle East.

Yet there is indeed no connection between any of the aforementioned words and modern Hebrew h.ummus, an Israeli loan word from Arabic, in which it is the plural form (“chickpeas”) of the singular h.immasa (a single chickpea). In Arabic and Hebrew alike, h.ummus denotes both the chickpea itself and the paste or dip that is made from it. A staple of the Palestinian Arab diet, the dip has spread to many parts of the world. In the classical Hebrew of the Talmud, on the other hand, h.ummus is known as h.imtsa.

Both h.ummus and h.imtsa are related to words having to do with sourness — h.ummus to the Arab verb h.ammada (to turn sour) and h.imtsa to the Hebrew h.amutz (sour); h.ametz or khometz, the leavened bread or other leavened products not eaten on Passover, are also Hebrew cognates. The reason for this, as you will know if you ever have left chickpeas or hummus paste in the refrigerator too long, is that both have a tendency to sour quickly. Indeed, the commercial hummus on sale in many American supermarkets is often sour tasting to begin with, which is never the way fresh hummus should be.

Chickpeas are also the main ingredient of another Middle-Eastern favorite that has caught on in many places in recent years — namely, falafel, which are ground cooked chickpeas shaped into meatball-sized spheres and deep-fried in oil. (In Egypt, an alternative version, called ta’miya, is made from fava beans. You always can tell which of the two you are eating as much from the color as from the taste, since falafel is a golden brown inside its brown crust while ta’miya is green.) Falafel in Arabic is the plural of filfil (pepper), and the food most likely got its name from being spiced with hot pepper, as it often still is.

Although both hummus and falafel are originally Arab foods, they have been popularized in America to a considerable extent by Israelis, who are avid consumers of both, with the result that the question of whether they are to be considered “Arab” or “Israeli” dishes has become a small part of the Middle East conflict. About hummus there is no room for argument: It is Arab through and through. Yet while falafel balls are undoubtedly Arab in origin, too, it may well be that the idea of serving them as a street-corner food in pita bread, to which all kinds of extras can be added, ranging from sour pickles to whole salads, initially was a product of Jewish entrepreneurship. Mr. Mallenbaum’s grandmother hardly would have recognized her arbes in them.

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