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That English You’re Speaking? It’s Hebrew. (Well, Some of It.)

The derivations of the words cinnamon, ruthless, scapegoat, and amen

January 26, 2016

According to Midrashic lore—as per Genesis 11:1—the first language on Earth was Hebrew, spoken by everyone, everywhere. And then, as the text goes on to describe, humanity screwed everything up by conspiring with each other to build a giant tower to ascend to the heavens and fight God. Naturally, the man upstairs was none too pleased by this, and therefore smote mankind with a variety of different dialects so that no one could understand the other in the ensuing babble. An incident famously known as the episode of the tower of Babel.

Given that backdrop, it’s entirely ironic that so many words Hebrew words spoken in Israel are backwards-engineered English ones, an irony currently being rectified by the Academy of Hebrew Language (which, with equal irony, is named the Academiya). But what makes this use of English loan words in modern Hebrew so thoroughly and hilariously meta is that English is literally littered with loan words and concepts borrowed from Hebrew. Here are a few:

Amen, Amenable
Both words stem from the Hebrew word amen [אמן], meaning “true and solid,” most often heard at the end of blessings or prayers as a spoken assent. “Amen” made the crossover into English thanks to its use in Church liturgy as a similar statement of agreement. These connotations carry over to word “amenable,” which describes: 1) a person who is open to a suggestion or is easily persuaded, i.e. someone who exhibits cooperative behavior, or 2) a thing, such lips, which are amenable to petroleum jelly. In other words—and roll with me here—people or things that are agreeable.

Don’t expect to find this etymology in any dictionary, though, because Noah Webster originally included the Hebrew amen as the root for “amenable,” which was expunged by etymologists and instead linked to the Latin minari meaning “to threaten.” Because that makes sense.

Example: Donald Trump’s hair is not amenable to the concept of shampoos and conditioner. Or combs. Or hair.

Surprise, surprise: Jews are the responsible party for naming this spice. Cinnamon comes from the Hebrew word qinnamon [קנמון], which first appeared in Exodus 30:23. (Qinnamon [קנמון] also appears alongside mor [מור] or “myrhh”—yet another spice whose name comes into English from transliterated Hebrew—and q’neh [קנה], translated as “calamus.”) You’re welcome world. Because Thyme Toast Crunch just doesn’t have the same ring. Also, it tastes awful.

Example: Many people believe Princess Leia’s hairdo in the original Star Wars movie looked like a pair of cinnamon buns.

These words are grandbabies of the Hebrew word yovel [יובל]At the end of every 50-year cycle (described in Leviticus 25:8-13), all Hebrew slaves were freed and all previously purchased ancestral lands were returned to their original owners. This year was known as a “yovel year,” a time associated with joy and thankfulness, hence the definitions of joy and celebrations associated with the world’s “jubilee” and jubilation.

Example: The terrible Robin-esque X-Man, Jubilee, however, is not the Jews’ fault.

In the Book of Ruth, Ruth is a widowed Moabite princess who acts as the epitome of kindness by following her former mother-in-law Naomi, and taking care of her. Ruth’s noble qualities of kindness came to be synonymous with her name, leading to the definition of “ruthless” (literally, “Ruth”-less), i.e. to lack the compassion that was characteristic of Ruth. Likewise, the now archaic 13th century word “ruthful” meant to be full of the kindness characterized in Ruth.

Example: Donald Trump is ruthlessly diplomatic, mostly because he doesn’t know what ruthless means. Or diplomatic.

Can I interest you in a little bit of animal sacrifice? ‘Cause back in ancient times, on Yom Kippur, in addition to fasting all day, we also used to sacrifice two goats to help us atone for our yearly carousel of sins (as per Leviticus 16). One goat we sacrificed to God. The other we symbolically loaded with our sins and threw off a cliff to “bribe” Satan into not bringing up our sins before God, henceforth allowing us to escape punishment.

Cliffs are also lookouts, or scapes. Many sources erroneously claim that “scapegoat” is the English translation of the Hebrew word azazel [עזאזל], however this is merely an alternative title for Satan. Nowadays, a scapegoat is someone who is given the blame for what others have done, retaining the concept behind the Yom Kippur practice. I’m reasonably sure there’s been more than one occasion throughout history where we wished we hadn’t thought of this one.

Example: Jews are scapegoats. (That’s it. That’s the whole joke.)

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.