Skip To Content

A Bad Week For Philologos

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 [email protected].

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.