A Bad Week For Philologos


By Philologos

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It’s been a bad week for a language columnist. First, an overworked and apparently groggy editor at the Forward decided — as many of you have noted, to your shock and/or amusement — to relocate the city of Brussels, mentioned in last week’s column, to Germany. I desperately beg you all to believe that although I am quite capable of making mistakes (see below), confusing Belgium with Germany is not one of them.

Next, Brooklynite Paul Glasser points out that my dismissal, in my January 14 column, of a supposed German derivation of Zuo Muose for “tsimmes” was totally unwarranted. “Lexer’s Dictionary of Middle High German,” Mr. Glasser writes, “lists muos, ‘meal, food,’ and zuomose, ‘side dish,’” while Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s 33-volume German dictionary “has a now-obsolete German dialect word Zimmes, which means ‘side dish,’ too.”

I must admit that if I had had access to the Grimm Brothers’ 33 volumes, or even just to the last of them, I would have come to a different conclusion. Not that my theory about tsimmes deriving from medieval German Zimmet, “cinnamon,” doesn’t still strike me as sensible — but it’s no use being merely sensible when confronted with a smoking gun, i.e., German dialect Zimmes having the same meaning as medieval zu muose. There’s nothing to do in such a case but raise one’s hands high and surrender.

AND ON TOP OF ALL THAT, two Montrealers, Stephen Menn and Dr. B. Frank, the latter of whom is from Concordia University, inform me I was wrong a second time in saying that our English word “cinnamon” can be etymologically traced back no further than Hebrew kinamon. Dr. Frank writes that a “quick glance” at my “Brown-Driver-Briggs Gesenius,” which is “to be found in the library of every Bible scholar” would show me that there is a likely Malay origin for “cinnamon,” while Mr. Menn tells me that I would have found the same thing by looking at my “Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon” of classical Greek.

Alas, I no more possess the Brown-Driver-Briggs Gesenius or the unabridged Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon than I do the 33 volumes of the Grimm Brothers. I do have an 1867 Hebrew-Latin Gesenius and the abridged (at a mere 804 pages) Liddell-Scott Greek-English Dictionary, and neither gives a Malay origin for “cinnamon.” Such are the limitations of a language columnist who wishes he had a better reference library!

And yet the same language columnist, luckily, has the Internet — where, at a site called “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages,” you can find the word for “cinnamon” in 70 different languages, from Pashto and Polish to Fante and Farsi. Among these languages is Malay, in which, we are told, kayu manis (literally “sweet wood”) means cinnamon.

Could “cinnamon,” which entered Europe via ancient Greek, theoretically have come from Malay kayu manis?

Well, phonetically, perhaps, yes — but such a derivation generally has not been accepted, and for good reasons. For one thing, cinnamon, which is prepared from the bark of the young branches of an Asiatic tree, seems to have reached the Mediterranean world in ancient times not from Malaysia or Malay-speaking Indonesia but rather from China, in which it was known as kwei, and Sri Lanka, in whose native Singhalese language it is called kurundu. And for another thing, no other Eastern or Central Asian language listed by Katzer has a word resembling either kayu manis or “cinnamon” — which is qurfa in Arabic, darchin in Persian, durusita in Sanskrit, tuj in Gujarati, ilavangam in Tamil, op cheuy in Thai, chek tum phka loeng in Khmer, yuhk gwai in Cantonese, rou gui in Mandarin and so on. Even if the ancient Greeks had gotten their cinnamon from Malay speakers, it would have had to pass through many other hands on its way to them; how, then, would a Malay word for “cinnamon” have reached them without leaving its imprint anywhere else?

The Greeks indeed had no clear idea of what the source of cinnamon was. Herodotus, according to whom the Greek word kinnamomon was borrowed from Phoenician traders, knew only that the latter purchased it from “the Arabians,” who “do not know where it comes from and what country produces it.” In the same breath, however, he then fancifully related that these same “Arabians,” by whom he presumably meant the Nabateans living in what is today Israel’s Negev and southern Jordan, collected the spice from the nests of large carrion-eating birds built of cinnamon bark and mud on “mountain precipices… which no man can climb.” The collectors “cut up the bodies of dead oxen, or donkeys or other animals, into very large joints, which they carry to the spot in question and leave on the ground near the nests. They then retire to a safe distance and the birds fly down and carry off the joints of meat to their nests, which, not being strong enough to bear the weight, break, and fall to the ground. Then the men come along and pick up the cinnamon, which is subsequently exported to other countries.”

Phoenician, the West Semitic language of the seafaring peoples living along the Mediterranean coast north of Palestine, was closely related to Hebrew, and since Hebrew kinnamon occurs in the Bible while no parallel Phoenician text has survived, Hebrew is commonly given as the word’s source. Indeed, since cinnamon probably reached the Phoenicians from the Nabateans via a land route crossing Palestine, it is just as likely that the word entered Phoenician from Hebrew as the other way around. Just because I was wrong about tsimmes doesn’t mean I also goofed on cinnamon — while about Brussels, the less said, the better.

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

Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.