January 21, 2019

Hebrew word of the week: Artsot ha-brit (The United States)

Students ask me: “What does artsot ha-brit, “the United States” have to do with brit, brit (milah), a “circumcision ceremony”? Then they add, jokingly: “Not everybody here is Jewish or circumcised.” 

English often prefers adjectives as qualifiers, as with the United Nations, the United States, whereas traditional, more normative Hebrew prefers nouns as qualifiers, as artsot ha-brit* “the Lands of the Union,” but ummot me’uHadot, “the United Nations,” is a more literal translation of the English. 

Compare the terms for electrical engineer, which is mehandes Hashmal (an engineer of electricity); with criminal lawyer, which translates as ’orekh-din plili (ambiguous, as in English, implying the lawyer is criminal!).

*Brit, a noun, means circumcision, covenant (with God), and refers to an agreement, union; so, bnot ha-brit means “the Allies” (in World War I and II).

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.