That’s a funny shibboleth you got there

A friend of mind recently told me that there are only two non-liturgical words in English that are derived from Hebrew—camel and cinnamon. This friend readily admits to playing fast and loose with the factoids at times. So while I was happy to learn about the origins of camel and cinnamon (which I later verified), this assertion struck me as suspect. Surely in our gigantic corpus, with all of the contact that English has had with Judaism and the Old Testament, we must have absorbed more than two tidbits? So, of course, I investigated, and I’d like to share with you the results. But first, I want to mention that I learned something interesting as I looked at this issue. In Spanish, cinnamon is canela. And I learned that ultimately it comes from the same root as cane, canister and cannelloni—you can see how they’re all cylinders. (The cinnamon must be in pre-grated state!)

But on to the Hebrew. I culled these from a Wikipedia article. I’m sure the list isn’t exhaustive, but it yields some interesting stuff:

behemoth
cherub (via some other languages, but from the Old Testament–has come to be used more broadly than a literal angel)
golem
hallelujah (arguably liturgical, though it’s definitely come to be used in a broader sense as well)
jubilee (with several intervening languages)
kosher (which has extended far beyond religion in meaning)
leviathan
nimrod
satan (not liturgical, but related to religion)
shekel (has come to a general slang usage for money)
shibboleth

This is not counting those words that come straight from Judaism and are still used mostly in that context—like bris, bar/bat mitzvah, challah, matzo; or those that come from Hebrew via Yiddish, like schmooze, maven, and so forth.

Leave a comment to tell me what other Hebrew-derived words you know of in English.

About Verla

Wordfreak. Linguist. WA State licensed P.I. #3377. Principal, Viera Investigations. Spanish-English interpreter. Sole proprietor, Encanto Language Services. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, PacNWer by choice. Jewelry artist, Different Drummer Designs. Owner, world’s most gigantic dachshund. Driver, world’s almost smallest car. Chocoholic. Lover of things purple.
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One Response to That’s a funny shibboleth you got there

  1. Yousei Hime says:

    Ironic! I just heard a report on NPR yesterday regarding the number of idioms English has garnered from the Bible. In the course of the report, your very topic was mentioned. Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for the invite and the post. Looking forward to more and really glad to hear from you.