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A Long Linguistic Chase

Sometimes a seemingly trivial etymological question can lead to a long linguistic chase. Such a query was recently sent to me by Raymond Henkin, who asked:

“In Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish dictionary, the Yiddish word shmergl is translated as ‘emery.’ A search shows the origins of ‘emery’ to be either Greek or Latin. How say you?”

What I say, Mr. Henkin, is that before we are done we are going to have to touch not only on Latin, and more importantly, ancient Greek, but on Sanskrit, Akkadian, biblical and post-biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Persian and French. If you’re ready, here we go.

Yiddish shmergl comes from German Schmirgel, which can mean either “emery” or “corundum.” Corundum, according to the dictionary, is “an extremely hard mineral, aluminum oxide, sometimes containing iron, magnesia, or silica, occurring in gem varieties such as ruby and sapphire and in a common gray, brown, or blue form used chiefly in abrasives.” Emery is “a fine-grained impure corundum used for grinding and polishing.” Most of us are familiar with it from the emery board, a cardboard or wooden nail file coated with an abrasive powder.

“Emery” sounds like it might be connected to “emerald,” and in fact, it is. In a way this is odd, since, unlike rubies and sapphires, today’s commercial emeralds are a green-tinted form not of corundum but of beryl, a different mineral entirely. Yet there is a green corundum, too, known commercially as “Oriental emerald,” which was not distinguished from green beryl in antiquity. Both were known to the ancient Greeks as smaragdos, from which comes our English “emerald,” via Latin smaragdus and old French esmeralde or Spanish esmeralda. (In old English, we also have “smaragdus,” taken directly from the Latin.) “Emery” comes from Greek smiris, a derivative form of smaragdos, by way of Latin smericulum, old French esmeril, and later French émeri. And from smericulum also comes German Schmirgel.

Hebrew too has a word for emerald that derives from Greek smaragdos — izmaragd. (Persian zomorod and Arabic zumrud, which dropped the “g,” are borrowings from the Greek, too.) This is not, however, a biblical word. It first occurs in Jewish sources in Aramaic translations of the Bible, such as the second-century C.E. Targum Onkelos, where it is used as an equivalent for the Hebrew word bareket in the listing of the 12 precious stones on the high priest’s breastplate in Exodus 28. (This rendering is already found in the third-century B.C.E. Greek Septuagint, where bareket is given as smaragdos. The King James version of the Bible, on the other hand, translates it into English as “carbuncle,” which does not make a great deal of sense.)

Bareket strikes one at first glance as being an original Hebrew word that derives, quite appropriately for a gemstone, from the verb barak, to shine or sparkle. In Akkadian, the Semitic language of ancient Babylonia, we have the cognate noun barraktu, also meaning an emerald, and a similar verb. Perhaps indeed it was the influence of this verb that helped change an initial “m” into a “b” (a common shift in language, “m” being in essence a nasalized “b”), because scholars have known for a long time that the Akkadian word was borrowed from the Sanskrit marakata, an “emerald” or gem of green corundum. To this day, the marakata is one of the seven sacred stones of Hinduism, associated with the planet Mercury and the day Tuesday, on which it is traditionally worn.

Marakata is not only the ultimate source of Hebrew bareket. It is also that of Greek smaragdos, with which, except for the Greek’s initial “s,” it shares the same root consonants. (“Like “m” and “b,” “k” and hard “g,” and “t” and “d,” are similar sounds that frequently replace each other in speech.) And as I learned from my Liddel and Scott’s Greek-English Lexiconr, ancient Greek also had the alternate form maragdos, meaning “emerald’ too. In fact, maragdos, borrowed from the Sanskrit, probably through ancient contact between Greek and Indian traders, was obviously the original Greek word. How then did it become smaragdos?

This question stumped me for a while. “Esses” often drop out of words – French ésmeril becoming émeri is a good example – but they don’t often drop in. And then, looking for maragdos in my lexicon, I found the answer in maragna, defined as a lash, whip or scourge. “Also smaragna,” said Liddel and Scott.

Eureka! Smaragdos was historically a case of what linguists call “overcompensation.” This is something that many New Yawkehs do when, trying to make up for dropping their “r”’s, they put them back where they don’t belong, as when they pronounce “idea” as “idear.” The ancient Greeks must have done the same thing. Since, that is, they tended to drop the initial “s” before “m,” turning smaragna into maragna, they sometimes overcompensated by “restoring” an “s” that never was lost, turning maragdos into smaragdos. It’s a lucky thing they did, too, because otherwise our Yiddish shmergl would be a mere mergl, and what kind of a word, Mr. Henkin might ask, is that?


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