By Philologos

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
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‘A haunting story about love, language, and loss,” the February 9 issue of The Jerusalem Report calls Israeli-born, Canadian-Jewish author Edeet Ravel’s first novel “Ten Thousand Lovers. Set in an Israel of disillusionment, a land of sadly lapsed ideals, “Ten Thousand Lovers” (Headline, 2003), the magazine informs us, is a bestseller in Canada and has been nominated for a prestigious literary award. Yet while Ravel’s credentials on love and loss may be impeccable, she flunks when it comes to language. Here is The Jerusalem Report:

[The] feeling of loss [in the novel] is subtly transmitted through the descriptions of the etymology of Hebrew words, which punctuate Lily’s [the heroine’s] narration. The language, like the characters, she seems to be saying, takes a turn for the worse in adapting to the present political situation. She points out, for example, that the [Hebrew] word for ‘pomegranate’ is rimon, which has taken on the added meaning of ‘grenade,’ and that habel (spoil) is the origin of the word for ‘terrorist.’ Both words, she notes, had completely different connotations when used in the erotic love poem and Biblical book Song of Songs.

What is wrong with Lily’s sociolinguistics? Just about everything, to judge by this sample of them.

Take rimon, which is indeed both the ancient and modern Hebrew word for “pomegranate” and the modern one for “hand grenade.” Does it really represent the brutalization of a language that has been compelled to make war and not love? Not if you know anything about pomegranates and hand grenades.

The fact is, as can be guessed just by looking at the two words, that “pomegranate” and “grenade” are related not only in modern Hebrew but in English as well. Indeed, they are identical or almost identical in many European languages, which Hebrew has simply gone and imitated. Thus we have French [pomme de] grenade, the fruit, from which the English “pomegranate” derives, and grenade, the weapon; German Granatapfel and Handgranate; Polish granat and granat; Spanish granada and granada, et cetera. (The Spanish city of Granada, incidentally, has nothing to do with the fruit’s name. This goes back, etymologically, to the Latin malum granatum, “seedy apple,” the Roman synonym of which, malum punicum or “Phoenician apple,” testifies to the pomegranate’s having reached Europe from the eastern Mediterreanean.)

Although it might seem logical to assume that hand grenades were called “pomegranates” because of the fruit’s division into inner compartments, each filled with seeds resembling explosive pellets, this is actually not the case. Developed in the 15th century, the earliest weapons to bear the name were hollow iron balls filled with gunpowder and ignited by a slow-burning wick, and they did not fragment into shrapnel like modern grenades; rather, they received their name from their external shape. The soldiers who specialized in throwing them at the enemy were known as “grenadiers,” and until the mid-18th century, when the range and power of rifles and cannons grew so great that grenades came to be of little use in an open battlefield (they regained their importance with the trench warfare of World War I), such troops were attached to the infantry of most European armies.

So much for the double meaning of rimon as a sad commentary on Israeli life! And now, what about h.abel, from which comes the modern Hebrew meh.abel, “terrorist”?

Here, I am afraid, Ravel’s Lily has simply misunderstood the meaning of the Hebrew root h.-b-l. This occurs three times in the Song of Songs, twice in the same verse, the fifth of Chapter Eight, which reads in the Jewish Publication Society Bible: “…Under the apple tree I awakened you; there your mother was in travail with you [h.iblatkha imkha], there she was in travail [h.iblah] and brought you forth.” The third time is in 2:15, where we have, “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil [meh.ablim] the vineyards; for our vineyards are in blossom.”

What does being “in travail,” i.e., having labor pains, have in common with “spoiling” vineyards? Not very much, it would seem — unless, that is, you realize, as Ravel’s Lily apparently does not, that “to spoil the vineyards” means to damage them and that the root meaning of h.-b-l, the lyrical tenderness of this verse notwithstanding, is to wound, damage or cause pain. Indeed, while meh.abel in the sense of “terrorist” (i.e., one who deliberately wounds, damages or causes pain) is a modern Hebrew word, the term mal’akhei h.abalah, “punishing angels,” used to refer to the demons whose job it is to torture sinners after their death, is an ancient rabbinic one. The suggestion, therefore, that meh.abel is an Israeli coarsening of the Hebrew language is absurd.

A novelist like Ravel is as entitled as anyone to have her political opinions and to express them in her writing. But it is one thing to express an opinion as such and another to disguise it as a seemingly knowledgeable statement about language that is in fact based on ignorance. One would think that a serious writer whose medium is language would have a greater sense of responsibility toward it.

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

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