In the spirit of Purim: some antics with Semitic semantics.
By Dr. Jeremy Benstein, HATC Senior Advisor
1. Shikker House Rules
In Yiddish, “drunk” is shikker, from the Hebrew shikor. You get shikor from liquor, that is, shekhar (Hebrew “k” and “kh” alternate). Shekhar in the Tanakh is usually paired with wine, but its Latin translators didn’t know exactly what sort of drink it was, so they just transliterated it as sicera. That entered Old French as cisdre, and finally came into English as “cider.”
So even if you prefer beer, know that cider is the real He-brew.
2. Purim Unmasked
Another interesting English-Hebrew Purim connection is the word for “mask,” maseikhah. Now masks are daily de rigueur, but once, only Purim had a “mask mandate.” They sound so similar you might think the English word is derived from an ancient Hebrew root . . . but it isn’t.
The modern Hebrew maseikhah comes from the biblical root נ-ס-כ (n-s-k), which means “liquify” or “pour.” This root gives us words like nasikh, “prince,” close cousin to the “messiah,” mashi’akh, both of whom were regally anointed with oil. In Exodus 32:4 maseikhah refers to the formation of the Golden Calf, with molten metal cast in a mold.
With the modernization of Hebrew, many new terms had to be coined. In this case, however, an old word was pressed into service with a new meaning, simply because it sounded similar.
That’s how maseikhah was chosen to mean “mask,” because of the phonetic similarity with mask, masque, maske, maska, etc. (Likewise, the older Hebrew word m’khonah, which was chosen to mean “machine,” because of its similar sound).
3. Come as You (Really) Are
Purim masks are part of getting dressed up to “masquerade,” or in Hebrew, l’hitchapes. Here’s a little grammar to understand why this is such a cool word.
The root is ח-פ-ש (ch-p-s), which means to “search” or “look for,” in a form that describes something you do to yourself. For instance, from the root ל-ב-ש (l-b-sh), “dress, wear,” we get lilbosh, “to wear,” and l’hitlabesh, “to dress oneself” (get dressed).
So l’hitchapes, “to disguise oneself,” hyper-literally means “to look for oneself.” Instead of coming as someone or something else, you’re “coming out” as who you might be if you could. Whether it’s a superhero or celebrity, we express some aspirational part of ourselves through role-playing.
So whether you’ll be inebriating, masquerading, or just plain celebrating, enjoy it while it lasts. Soon enough, we’ll take off the masks, sober up, and start getting ready for Passover.
In other words: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we clean.