November 18, 2004

Philistine Invasion

David Frum writes:

Reading the Washington Post this weekend one suddenly realized that one was witnessing the birth of new PC taboo. On the oped page, a Palestinian novelist named Diana Abu-Jaber complained, "The word "philistine" means "boorish and backward"; it comes from the word for "Palestinian." It is a derogatory word that demeans an entire culture, and it is used with relative impunity in this country." Suddenly one had a vision of the same language police who have tried to ban "blackmail" as offensive to African-Americans, "whopping" as offensive to Italian-Americans, and "galling" as offensive to Franco-Americans going to work on the word "philistine." So, before it's too late, a short language lesson.

The word "philistine" does NOT come from the word "Palestinian." It's the other way around: the word "Palestinian" comes from the word "philistine." After the suppression of the Jewish revolts of AD 68-70, the Romans eradicated all signs of Jewish political independence. They determined even to eliminate the name "Judea." So they rummaged around in the ancient books of the Jews, found there the name of a long vanished enemy nation, and imposed it on the area: "Philistia," which they Latinized to "Palestina."

This is all correct. The Romans pursued an unapologetic policy of ethnic cleansing of Judea. In addition to killing its inhabitants by the millions, they actively suppressed the local (Jewish) culture. Among other things, they renamed Judea to Palestina and Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina.

Philistine, however, is not a Philistine word: It's a Hebrew word. Most Hebrew words come to English indirectly through either Greek or Latin (or both). Since neither of these languages have the "sh" sound, you will notice that almost all Hebrew words that have that sound have a "s" in English, for example Solomon in Hebrew is Sh'lomo. (We also got a Greek case ending, and notice that the ' > o under the influence of the following o.)

Philistine in Hebrew is P'lishti (פלשתי). Evidently this word comes to English through the Greek, in which the "ph" was pronounced as an aspirated "p" (not "f"). The Hebrew "p" is transcribed variously by Greek "p" or "ph", I presume that in Hebrew it was aspirated in some contexts but not others (in modern Hebrew it is always aspirated). The only other initial-p Hebrew word in English, that I can think of, is Phineas - Pinhas (פנחס), also transcribed with a "ph". The Hebrew schwa (') became "i" under influence of the following "i" (cf. Solomon above) - Greek also didn't have a schwa.

So what does it mean? The root of P'lishti is p-l-sh, which means invade. So Philistine simply means: invader. The Philistines were a non-Semitic people who invaded ancient Israel from the sea, and settled along the southern coast, in what is now the Gaza strip, but continuing somewhat further north. Very little is known of their origin, or their language (they were illiterate). The Bible claims their origin as Cyprus, and they are evidently culturally related to the Mycenaean Greeks (pre-Greek inhabitants of Greece), and they are sometimes associated with the mysterious Sea-Peoples, who terrorized the Mediterranean of their time much like the Vikings.

In any case, it's not clear to me how philistine came to mean boorish. In the Bible the Philistines are portrayed as technologically advanced, and not nearly as abominable as the Canaanites.

UPDATE: Amritas comments. He also asks a question: "David, can similar inconsistencies be found in the Greek transcriptions of Hebrew t, t, k, and q? That is, do they appear in Greek as t~th and k~kh?" I can't give a definitive answer, since I know the Greek transcriptions only indirectly through English. However, before I address the question, you need to know that Hebrew stops p, t, k (as it was spoken at the time) alternate with the fricatives f, th (as in English), and kh (like German ch), the rule being that after a vowel (including sh'va' na` but not sh'va' nah) they take their fricative forms, unless doubled (the same rule holds for their voiced forms b, d, g, which alternate with v, dh, gh). We see Greek ph, th, and kh, used consistently for the Hebrew f, th, an kh. Examples: Joseph (יוסף), Judith (יהודית), Michael (מיכאל). The only other data point I can think of is: Thummim (as in Urim and Thummim) which has a th where I would expect a t. So I don't know where that leaves us, maybe what I said above was wrong. 

UPDATE: You might be wondering why my transcriptions of Hebrew don't use th, dh, or gh. It's because modern Hebrew pronunciation doesn't have these sounds, i.e. th > t, dh > d, and gh > g. Also, modern Hebrew pronunciation doesn't distinguish double letters, and in many cases sh'va' na` > sh'va' nah, so the distinctions between p/f, b/v, and k/kh are now phonemic.

Also, Amritas answers my question above:

According to the fourth edition of The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition (2000), the 'boorish' meaning of philistine is of relatively recent German origin:

Beginning in the 17th century philistine was used as a common noun, usually in the plural, to refer to various groups considered the enemy, such as literary critics. In Germany in the same century it is said that in a memorial at Jena for a student killed in a town-gown quarrel, the minister preached a sermon from the text “Philister über dir Simson! [The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!],” the words of Delilah to Samson after she attempted to render him powerless before his Philistine enemies. From this usage it is said that German students came to use Philister, the German equivalent of Philistine, to denote nonstudents and hence uncultured or materialistic people. Both usages were picked up in English in the early 19th century.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at November 18, 2004 04:43 PM
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Unfortunately, people are very ill informed about the etymology of words. I had one friend whose daughter was told byy a professor (in I forget what college course) that the root of jewelry was Jew. (it is not. According to the online dictionary it is either from the old French word for Jewel or from the middle latin, traced back to Latin meaning either rejoice or pasttime.)

I also had another friend who informed me that the Jews had never built the pyramid.
"I know" I responded, surprised that she hadn't know this fact.

The misconnections that people make are astounding.

Posted by: Rachel Ann at November 21, 2004 09:29 PM Permalink