Misdemeanors against Etymology: “camel”

A few years ago, Miriam Vamosh posted a musing on a “Word of the Day” on Haaretz which, on a Politifact Truth-O-Meter scale, might not quite rank a full “true.”

Ride it or read it, the Hebrew word for that long-necked, hump-backed desert animal shares a linguistic genealogy with the English name it eventually inspired.

First, we must parse this introduction. Does the Hebrew word share a genealogy with an English word, or did it inspire it? There’s a difference. Old English had both francus and spere as words for “spear,” and the first one came from the same proto-Germanic root which named the Franks (and thus France), but it was spere that stayed and became “spear.” Latin, being an older cousin of English via Indo-European, had a word with a similar genealogy: sparus, “short spear.”

Given the huge influence Latin had on the development of English (there are Latin roots in Old English, and vastly more in Middle English, and VASTLY more in Modern English), the presence of sparus in Latin texts perhaps influenced Old English speakers to keep spere and drop francus. If so, sparus “inspired” “spear,” but I wince at that terminology. English words like “wine,” “cheese,” and “camp” were taken directly from Latin (vinum, caseus, campus). If “spear” was influenced by Latin, this is not the same as being taken from Latin. 

Ancient Hebrew did not give English the word “camel.”

The third letter of the Hebrew alphabet gimel, is related to the Hebrew word gamal, the name of the animal the letter’s long neck is supposed to resemble. Which animal? Replace the first letter, g, with a c, and you almost have it – the camel. The English word “camel” comes down through the alphabetical ages from the word “gimel.”

Setting aside the fact that gimel may take its shape from a throwing stick, the word didn’t come from Hebrew. As the Jewish Encyclopedia notes:

The word “camel” (Hebrew, , gamal) is the same in the Assyrian, Samaritan, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Egyptian, and Ethiopic languages. Together with the knowledge of the animal, its name was introduced into Greek (κάμηλος) and Latin (camelus), whence many modern languages derived it.

The Hebrew word came from the shared heritage of the languages derived from Proto-Semitic, or Proto-Afroasiatic. It was likely Canaanite (fine, Phoenician) merchants who gave the word to the Greeks, who gave it to the Romans, who gave it to the Proto-Germanics.

As for gimel, well, that connection is because Biblical Hebrew is a dialect of Canaanite. This isn’t controversial, the Bible itself refers to Hebrew as “the language of Canaan.”

The Canaanites (fine, Phoenicians, but that’s really not entirely accurate) gave the world the simplified alphabetical system (used now to teach Chinese students the rudiments of their language).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Biblical Hebrew of course has exerted a massive influence on the Western and modern worlds, given that the two largest religions (Christianity & Islam) arose from a Hebraic framework of thought and culture. English is full of idioms and unusual words ultimately incomprehensible without knowledge of the Tanakh and New Testament (both of course Jewish documents in their own ways), from “balm in Gilead” to “flesh of my flesh” to “shibboleth.” 

But in this case, Biblical Hebrew does not deserve credit. Perhaps in eras where most Europeans were never able to see a camel, its presence in sections of the Bible kept the creature in the forefront of European imagination. In that sense, yes, like “spear”/sparus, fans of the camel owe Hebrew a debt of gratitude.

Vamosh commits a misdemeanor against etymology and history, however, by neglecting to mention the Canaanites (sigh, Phoenicians), the alternate scholarly explanations of gimel’s shape, and the Ancient Greek and Latin intermediaries leading to the English “camel.” While she has a kernel of truth (Hebrew gamal and English “camel” share distant common ancestry), her implication that English owes Hebrew for the hump-backed word is incorrect.

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