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AWADmail Issue 683

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

Sponsor’s Message:
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From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: Interesting stories from the Net

Digitized, Searchable Archives Help Revive ‘Sleeping’ Languages
Smithsonian Science

First and Last Syllables Encoded Better from Birth on

From: John E. Maroney (johnmaroney earthlink.net)
Subject: tohubohu

When L.L. Zamenhof was constructing Esperanto, he felt this expression was important enough to transfer (almost) directly into the Esperanto vocabulary:

tohuvabohuo (noun): state of primordial confusion
tohuvabohua (adj.): utterly confused

... and so on through adverbial and various verbal forms.

John E. Maroney, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

From: Dicky Love (jrlove gmail.com)
Subject: Toe-Who-Vuh-Bo-Who

This word threw me back to a 40-year-old grad school memory which made me laugh. Thank you.

Tohubohu is an English transliteration of the Hebrew from Genesis 1:2-toe-who-vuh-bo-who. The Hebrew translates in most English versions as “formless and void” or something of the sort. The words describe the nothingness from which God created everything, at least according to Genesis 1. These words were also the basis of an award given (quite tongue-in-cheek at an off-the-record senior gathering) at the grad school I attended. The TOE-WHO-VUH-BO-WHO award was given to the graduate student who wrote papers using the most words based on the least amount of information, thus creating the most verbose “something” from a lot of “nothing”. It was not a compliment.

I think of this award almost every day in the around-the-clock news reports. I watch a piece and think: “Toe-Who-Vuh-Bo-Who”. They just waded into a void and put together a lot of words from nothing.

Thank you for the memory,

J. Richard Love, Ruston, Louisiana

From: Jim Tang (mauijt aol.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--tohubohu

The one-word English definition for tohubohu might be entropy. And your example is a small-scale demonstration of how life works, starting with the Big Bang. It’s a miracle.

Jim Tang, Kula, Hawaii

From: Freda Keet (fredak netvision.net.il)
Subject: Tohubohu

As an Israeli and therefore regular speaker of Hebrew may I take issue with your identification of the word Tohubohu! Far from being first used in the sixteen hundreds, this is in fact the expression first used in the Hebrew Bible, the first line of the first book of Genesis when the “heavens and the earth” were created and the Earth, in immortal words was described as “without form and void”. In other words, dark and chaotic...the meaning of the word “tohubohu”!

Freda Keet, Herzliyya, Israel

We list the earliest documented date of the word in English. The Book of Genesis was written in Hebrew.
-Anu Garg

From: Charlie Rose (ros5e t-online.de)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--tohubohu

You wrote: Hebrew is not your typical language. It has 22 letters, all consonants. No vowels. No capital letters. And it’s written from right to left.

My question, then, is: For the word “tohubohu”, when it’s written in Hebrew, how is one to know if the pronunciation should not be TEE-hay-bee-hay, or something else? All this supports my contention that the human mind is completely incapable of inventing a logical, consistent, and rational language!

Charlie Rose, Oberaudorf, Germany

We are transcribing the Hebrew word in the English language so we have to show the sounds, but when a word is written in Hebrew it doesn’t include vowels. For example, if “book” were a word in Hebrew, you’d write it as “bk”. So how do we know how to pronounce a word? A language is primarily an oral medium and passed from generation to generation. When there were breaks in the oral tradition of Hebrew, a system of dots above and below the letters was employed to indicate pronunciations.
-Anu Garg

From: Richard S. Russell (RichardSRussell tds.net)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--tohubohu

That absence of vowels means that nobody really has a clue how the ancient Israelites pronounced their words. In The Cartoon History of the Universe, Larry Gonick speculates about the tetragrammaton , the character string YHWH, the name of God, which nobody is supposed to say out loud. Today, Gonick notes, it’s generally rendered in English as “Yahweh”, but he goes on to say that, for all we know, the people of Moses’s time pronounced it “Yahoo-Wahoo”. As his cartoon avatar engages in this speculation, he’s zapped by a lightning bolt, leaving him scorched and questioning himself “Yahoo-Wahoo?”.

Richard S. Russell, Madison, Wisconsin

From: Max Montel (maxmontel yahoo.com)
Subject: tohubohu

From Hebrew tohu wa-bhohu, from tohu (formlessness) and bhohu (emptiness). Earliest documented use: 1619.

Tohu -- formlessness. Any chance it’s related to tofu -- flavorlessness? (A joke, I’m mostly vegetarian and eat tofu regularly, but one of its great virtues is its ability to take on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in or with.)

Max Montel, Los Angeles, California

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From: Denise Kuehner (dmk16 columbia.edu)
Subject: behemoth

In 1993, a controversy at the University of Pennsylvania involving the definition of the word “behemoth” escalated to the level of the White House. A student shouted “Shut up, you water buffalo” at a crowd of mostly black sorority sisters who were making a noise outside his dorm. The university accused him of racial harassment, but he defended his comment by maintaining that “water buffalo” came from “behemoth”, Hebrew slang for “a loud or rowdy person”. The incident became national news, and nearly derailed the career of the university’s president, who was being considered for the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The lawsuits and press coverage led to heated debates about free speech and hate speech, and permanent changes in university policies.

Denise Kuehner, Old Tappan, New Jersey

From: Samuel Goldstein (samuelg fogbound.net)
Subject: Gehenna

As you mentioned, Gehenna was a place where (according to biblical sources) the Canaanites performed human sacrifice -- a shallow valley outside the old city of Jerusalem. In the 80s, I visited my sister who lived not far from there, and she indicated a parking lot and noted that it’s the commonly agreed upon location for the events described in the book of Chronicles. I made a point of walking over to it, so I could honestly tell people that my travels had included “going to Gehenna and back”.

Samuel Goldstein, Los Angeles, California

From: Tali Avishai (tal_miqa zahav.net.il)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--gehenna

In Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Winners” (The concluding moral of “The story of the Gadsbys”), the final lines are:

“Down to Gehenna or up to the throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

Tali Avishay, Jerusalem, Israel

From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: Limericks

Books tell of an overgrown crow who
Approached a poor poet named Poe, to
Declare, “Nevermore!”
It remained at his door,
Thus causing undue tohubohu.

-Anne Thomas, Sedona, Arizona (antom earthlink.net)

A job with a corporate behemoth
Is not what at first it may seemeth
The health care and pension
Relieve all your tension
But downsizing they will achieveth.

-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)

Samson was a leviathan,
Much stronger than most anyone,
Till Delilah, that slut,
Gave him one bad hair cut,
And his mighty strength was undone.

-Joan Perrin, Port Jefferson Station, New York (perrinjoan aol.com)

The Lord saved from starvation with manna
Which they ate with a thanks and hosanna.
It was good, it was free,
But if it had been me,
I would rather have had a banana.

-Zelda Dvoretzky, Haifa, Israel (zeldahaifa gmail.com)

“The mind is a private gehenna,”
Said old Doctor Freud in Vienna
“The id and the ego
Are not your amigo
Until there’s a moral antenna.”

-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)

From: Phil Graham (pgraham1946 cox.net)
Subject: Puns on this week’s words

The New Zealand winemaker said, “Someone’s muddled our Tohu, bo’ who?

Shaquille O’Neal didn’t look that big from the 2nd balcony, behemoth have weighed 350!

The 49er denim maker said, “I’d rather be known as Leviathan Strauss.”

If the Hebrews had been Italian, would God have provided mannacotti?

Heard at the beauty salon: “No, when I gehenna I look like hell!”

Phil Graham, Tulsa, Oklahoma

The strength of a language does not lie in rejecting what is foreign but in assimilating it. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet, dramatist, novelist, and philosopher (1749-1832)

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