Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The politics of etymology

Modern Orthodox Woman writes:
I started a conversational ulpan today as a way of improving my Hebrew-speaking skills. Don't ask me why, but one of the words which we started discussing is the Hebrew word for husband - ba'al. As it turns out, ba'al also means owner in Hebrew, and this dual meaning does not make for the most politically correct of terms.

Of course, as a friend pointed out, "husband" is also a word which does not have the greatest of connotations. Husbandry is a term used for someone who takes care of a farm or animals (now I'm not sure which is worse, husband or ba'al!) But the difference, it seems to me, is that the word husband is not used so frequently for animal husbandry (at least not in my circles). When one says husband, whatever its original meaning, we think husband and wife. Ba'al however, easily can mean husband or owner in modern Hebrew. (And if you are a student of the ancient Near East you might also associate the word ba'al with that ancient Near Eastern storm god, ba'al).

It turns out, my ulpan teacher told us, that there is some movement within the young Israeli community, to put an end to calling one's husband ba'al, and to replace it with the phrase ben-zug for husband, and bat-zug for wife. Ben or bat zug means partner or spouse, and although I have never heard anyone actually use this term, I think it has quite a nice ring to it.
I agree, ben-zug and bat-zug do sound pretty. And if you think about it, ba'al isn't very PC. While not a woman I am part of a group that ostensibly has to deal with words like "jew" used as a verb meaning "cheat" and "pharisee" as a synonym for hypocrite. I think I do understand why words might rub one the wrong way. But I can't seem to agree for something like this. Putting aside the lashon ha-kodesh angle--this is arguing with etymology! Whatever the word connoted in the ancient Near East millenia ago today it connotes a husband in the sense of an equal relationship where neither party owns the other, certainly when it is used in the context of marriage. Does anyone really think of property when marriage is discussed in Hebrew?

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