Vol. 20 New Series April, 1958 No. 5
English more Archaic than Ancient Hebrew?

Although the language of the Hebrew Bible has been dead for over two thousand years as a spoken tongue, there are some English words which are just as old, if not older in form today.

One of these is probably the word see-saw, a word for which it has been very difficult to find a derivation. A see saw operates best when there is equivalence of weight on both ends. The expression "so-so" is only another form of see-saw. I once asked a friend how his health was, and he replied "so-so," which I understood to mean that it Was the same as before, or "neither very good nor very bad," as it has been defined. Both of these terms, see-saw and so-so, seem to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon swa-swa, meaning so as, just as, so that. This was an extremely common expression in very Old English. At Matthew 5:41 in the Angle Bible we read: "And swa hwa swa the genyt thusend stapa, ga mid him othre twa thusend"—"And whosoever (literally, so-who-so) thee compels a thousand steps, go with him other two thousand."

When a Maltese person is asked about his health, he may reply, sewwa, just as we would say, "so-so."

In the Greek language we find the word isos, meaning equal. In the New Testament it is found in Matt. 20:12; Mark 14:56 (their witness agreed not); 14:59 (similar); Luke 6:34 (as much again); John 5:18 (making Himself equal with God); Acts 11:17 (the like gift); Phi1. 2:6 (to be equal with God); Rev. 21:16 (length and breadth. . . equal).

The word isos (found in our words isotherm, isogon, isosceles, isobar, etc.) has been traced back to an older form, visvos or wiswos, and this seems to go back to a still earlier form, svisvos or swiswos, very like the Old English swa-swa. We must remember that in Hebrew and in Greek an initial letter W or V in a word was lost very early. This rule helps us to reconstruct many words in the Hebrew language.

We begin with the Hebrew word seah, meaning a measure (of flour or grain, etc., spelt Samek, Aleph, Heh). This word is found nine times. The Lexicons say its root is unknown. Such a measure was the equivalent of a fixed weight. The root must surely be the same as the root of Sasah (Only found at Isa. 27:8, King James Version "In measure," R.S.V. "Measure by measure."). That is the Septuagint rendering here, and it seems to be correct.

The most interesting word, however, is shavah (spelt Sh, U, Heh), found 23 times, and translated generally as to make equal, or to make like, or to make equivalent, as at Isaiah 46:5; Lam. 2:13; Dan. 5:21.

Sometimes in the Hebrew language a feature is expressed in a number of words which only differ slightly from each other. In English we find words such as glance, glare, gleam, glimmer, glimpse, glint, glisten, glitter, gloaming, gloom, glow, glum, all more or less connected with light or shining.

In Hebrew the combination of the letters Z or Tz along with the letters B or Ph seems to mark things or animals which are yellow or tawny in colour. For example, Zahab (or Zeb) means Gold, while Zeeb (or Zab) means a Wolf, as being of a tawny or yellowish colour, which was the kind of wolf known to the people of Israel. The word Tzahob (or Tzeb) means Yellow; Tzabua (or Tzbuo) is a Hyena (Jer. 12:9, as the Septuagint shews also); Tzbi is the Gazelle (Roe or Roebuck in the King James Bible). Tzepha (or Tzpho) is a Yellow Snake, and Tzaphia (or Tzphio) is excrement.

In the Anglo-Saxon tongue the word yellow was spelt geolu or geolo, from the root gol or gul, which root also produced our word wolf, probably originally spelt gwolukos, which gave rise in Latin to lupus, and in Greek to luquus, later lukos, both meaning wolf.

Thus we discover that the Hebrew word for yellow is also very like the word for wolf, although it comes from a root quite different.

A.T. Last updated 4.11.2005