Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Chanukkah & its friends

Chanukkah & its friends
First, a big thanks to you. Last week’s hits were twice the usual. Who knew Dog idioms are a fascination of the culture?

Since this post is up right in the middle of Chanukkah (December 8 to December 16), let’s take an etymological glance at Chanukkah & a few Chanukkah-related words that have made their way into English.

I’ll start by noting that the spellings I’ve chosen for this post are those favored by Balashon– the Hebrew Language Detective. Do others prefer other spellings? Yes. Any time English steals from elsewhere (which is most of the time), spellings get funky. There you go.

Not surprisingly, Chanukkah, means consecration. It entered English at the late date of 1891 (linguistic anti Semitism at work, perchance?). Interestingly, Chanukkah was the proper name of Cain’s oldest son, the father of Methusaleh.

Menorah entered English about the same time (1886), meaning candlestick, from a Semitic term meaning to shine or give light. This word came from the Arabic word manarah or manarat meaning fire. The word minaret comes from the same root, which means there’s hardly an etymological degree of separation between minarets all over the world, from which Muslims are called to prayer, & the countless menorahs lit for Chanukkah.

Dreidel comes to English through Yiddish, & came to Yiddish through German. Not surprisingly, the root German word drehen means to spin. Its relatives include throw, torque, twist, & torment. This may shed new light on the idiom “she’s got her knickers in a twist,” though I’m not sure exactly what we can learn from that.

For as long as I remember I’ve had a fondness for the term Mazel tov. It came into English in 1826 from the Modern Hebrew term mazzel tob, which means good luck. This came from another Hebrew word mazzaloth, which refers to constellations, a connection to the understanding that one’s luck might be in the stars.

So, this Chanukkah, may menorahs burn brightly, dreidels spin nimbly, minarets do their good work, & may nobody’s knickers get in a twist over any of it.

Mazel tov!

My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OEDEtymonline. & Balashon –Hebrew Language Detective


  1. Remember when I drew a menorah incorrectly on the board while we were studying Anne? Haha, oops.

  2. Hey Heather,
    Maybe you subconsciously knew menorah is related to minaret & you drew a series of minarets instead of a menorah? I guess that's a bit of a stretch, isn't it?

  3. You left out "Jzlubb": The cousin who shows up at the Hannukah bush decorating party in zorries, ratty red headband, fringed suede jacket (circa Easy Rider) zonked to Santa's roof-top and wants to French kiss everyone, including Grampa Sammy and the mini French poodle, who is the only one who wants it. (He's never been very selective. The poodle.)

  4. I love that menorah and minaret come from the same root word. But then all three of the "great" religions stem from the same prophet, Abraham. And yet...ah well. Happy, happy and merry, merry to all!

  5. I guess I'd better go light my minarets.... Love SK's "Jslubb" story. That cousin doesn't just show up for C/Hanukkah. I've seen him at way too many Yule celebrations, too.

  6. Hi Christine, Anne & Steve,
    Yes indeed, good old Cousin Jzlubb transcends all religion & culture, I suppose, & I'm with Christine on the minaret/menorah point.

  7. WOW! Nice post!! Words, meaning, get lots of information from your blog. I love the festival of light, menorahs. Thank you.