Sunday, August 21, 2005

Uncle Poison

The New Yorker of Aug. 22 has an interesting article on Bruce Lawrence of Duke University who is studying the Arabic writings of Osama bin Laden. Of several noteworthy points, this one especially caught my eye:

[Lawrence] even detects a dark sense of humor in bin Laden's writings. "In one of the translations, he talks about Uncle Sam. In Arabic, Uncle Sam is 'Amm Sam' — it rhymes, you see. The Arabic word samm means poison, and an uncle, in Arabic, is supposed to be someone you can trust."

Wow — who knew that the Evil One was an inveterate punster? In fact, OBL's insulting wordplay is right in line with hoary Near Eastern tradition, which likes to find negative meanings in the names of supposedly bad folk. One might mention, among several examples from the Hebrew Bible, the name Jezebel, Heb. iyzevel, probably originally containing a reference to zevul, "prince," a title of Baal. But the wicked queen's name was pronounced so as to recall the word zevel, "dung." In rabbinic times, the failed rebel Simon Bar Kosiba was referred to as Bar Koziba, "son of the liar" (after having been known more positively as Bar Kokhba, "son of the star").

The words themselves in "uncle poison" have interesting Semitic connections, as well. Arabic amm is cognate to Hebrew עם, am, "people." Hebrew has generally lost all connection to the supposedly primitive significance of the word, which is, as in Arabic, "paternal uncle." But there are a few personal names in ancient Israel that retain the meaning; e.g., Ammishaddai (Num. 1:12) probably means "Shaddai (the Almighty) is my uncle." (If the culture had stayed on this track, we might now be talking about the "unclehood" of God, instead of His "fatherhood.")

The word "poison" (Arabic samm) is, I surmise, a loanword from Aramaic. In the North-West Semitic dialects, sam(m) means "spice" (Biblical Hebrew, as in Ex. 25:6, etc.), "medicine" (post-Biblical Hebrew, as in m.Yoma 8:6), "paint," "dye," "fluid," "drug," etc. Aramaic sources use the expression samma de-mota, "death drug" for "poison," and this latter meaning, with the headword only, was borrowed by Arabic speakers (just as English speakers borrowed the meaning and headword chef of the French expression chef de cuisine, "head cook").

Can't we come up with a good retort? Like "Osama bin Rotten," or the like?

UPDATE: Michael Gilleland has a crappy followup.


Anonymous said...


Senator Bob Graham of Florida calls the Evil One Osamah-Been-Missing ; but that's a little political, eh?

Ed Morrowe

Tyler F. Williams said...

I always thought that the name "Jezebel" (איזבל = "not a prince" or "where is the prince?") is a parody on her real name that would have been something like "Abizebel" = "My (divine) father is a prince" or "Ahizebel" = My brother is a prince," etc. Also, I am not familiar with the Biblical Hebrew word zebel for dung -- am I missing something? I thought דמן domen or גל gel were the words for dung in Hebrew. The only connection I see is that Jezebel is compared with dung (דמן) in 2Kings 9:37. Or the the dung reference to later tradition?

EMC said...

Tyler: neither zevul "prince" nor zevel, "dung," is attested as such in Biblical Hebrew, but the wordplay is probable on the basis of comparative evidence (zevel is known from post-Biblical Hebrew). Who says they only had one or two words for dung? Besides the 2 you mentioned, and zevel, there's also tzoah, chara'im, and tzafia. I dare say parallels could be found from our own language. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ed,

Leviticus Rabba 33 has this wordplay on Nebuchadnezzar:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego answered and said to king Nebuchadnezzar ... "You are like a dog to us! Nebuchadnezzar, bark (nebach)like a dog, bubble (nefach)like a pot (kad), chirp (netzar)like a cricket (tzartzerah)!" [And N did so.]

Since "nevukh" means "confused" or "clueless," I've wondered whether "Nebuchadrezzar" became the biblical "Nebuchadnezzar" by way of a malicious pun. My best guess so far is "Nevukh d'ne'etzar, "the fool who was locked up." Got a better guess? Great way to waste time.