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Is British Ish Brit?

Rabbi Samuel Silver of Boca Raton, Fla., has a short question: “Is ‘British’ related to brit?”

I take it that this question is tongue in cheek. The claim that “British” comes from the Hebrew words brit (or “covenant,” familiar to many of you in its Ashkenazic form of bris, a circumcision) and ish (“man”) so that it means “man of the covenant” has been around for a long time — 200 years, in fact. It goes back to the beginnings of the British Israelites, a movement founded in England in the early 19th century to promulgate the idea that the British people hailed from the 10 (actually nine) Lost Tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel that disappeared from history after being carried off into exile by the Assyrians in the eighth century C.E.

The British Israel movement was founded by an Englishman named Richard Brothers, who in 1800 published a book titled Correct Account of the Invasion of England by the Saxons, Showing the English Nation To Be Descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes.” At its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the movement had tens of thousands of followers. Among the many “proofs” offered by it, such as the claim that the Stone of Scone in Westminster Abbey was the very stone that served Jacob as a pillow on the night he dreamed his ladder of angels while fleeing from his brother, Esau, were a large number of supposed linguistic resemblances between English and biblical Hebrew. The British/brit ish equation was one of the foremost of these.

Of course, any beginning Hebrew student could tell you that “man of the covenant” in Hebrew is ish brit and not brit ish, but the British Israelites were never a group to be deterred by even the simplest facts. Brothers himself died in a lunatic asylum, and his disciples, while not necessarily as unbalanced as he was, were no less delusory in their beliefs. And yet, like many delusions, these beliefs live on not only among the uneducated but also among those who should know better. Since Brothers’s time, there have been repeated attempts by so-called scholars to argue for a historical Hebrew-English connection. Those attempts continue sporadically to this day. As recently as 1989, for example, a Yeshiva University English professor named Isaac Elchanan Mozeson published his Dictionary That Reveals the Hebrew Source of English. It containing 5,000 English words of alleged Hebrew origin, such as English “abash” and Hebrew bushah (shame), English “evil” and Hebrew avel (evil deed), English “lick” and Hebrew likek (lick), and so on.

Such lists, needless to say, are meaningless. The great majority of their similar-sounding words are coincidental convergences such as can be found in any two languages. These words have nothing intrinsic to do with each other, as can be shown easily by using etymological analysis. “Abash,” for instance, derives, via French, from Latin batare, “to gape,” while “evil” goes back to early Germanic ubilaz, “exceeding the limit,” from Indo-European upo, “up” or “over.”

Moreover, even when a Hebrew and an English word are truly related, this relationship can nearly always be explained by borrowing in one direction or the other. Thus, while it is definitely not a coincidence that Hebrew sak means “sack,” this is not because a lost tribe brought the word to England, but because “sack” comes from Latin saccus, which comes from Greek sakkos, which was borrowed from a Semitic language like Hebrew — most likely from Aramaic sakka. Similarly, Hebrew avir means the same as English “air” because Hebrew took the word from Greek aer, as, ultimately, did English. (Greek was the spoken language of much of Palestine from the time of Alexander the Great to that of the Muslim conquest nearly 1,000 years later, and so it was in close contact with Hebrew.) Sometimes we don’t know which way the borrowing went. Although Latin vinum, Greek oinos, Hebrew yayin and Akkadian (ancient Babylonian) inu, all meaning “wine,” are almost certainly linked, the link is so ancient that it is anybody’s guess how the word traveled.

Yet even the invention of wine came at a relatively late stage of human development. There are some Hebrew-English word connections that may go back further. Take, for example, Hebrew sheva, “seven”: While its resemblance to the English numeral might appear a pure coincidence, there are reputable linguists who think that it isn’t and that sheva and seven’s oldest ancestors, conjectured Proto-Semitic sab’atum and conjectured Proto-Indo-European septm, may owe their similarity to contact as much as 10,000 years ago between early Indo-European and Semitic speakers in or near the eastern Mediterranean.

This is slightly dizzying, I agree. Still, it is not irrational. There is no reason that such contact could not have taken place. There are many excellent reasons, however, that Israelite tribes exiled from Palestine by the Assyrians could not have turned up centuries later in England, and Rabbi Silver presumably knows them as well as I do. The rabbi was just trying to help me write a column.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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