It sounds Jewish, but is it? Part 2

Investigating words that sound Jewish, or look Jewish on paper

It sounds Jewish, but is it? Part 2 photo
Nachos, not to be confused with nachas

Last time, we examined words and terms that had the word, or sound, "Jew" in them. But there are obviously many more things that sound as if they could be Jewish.

Let's start with things that aren't:


While it sounds a bit like Eden, it is a harbor city in Yemen, which is a country just southeast of Saudi Arabia. It's … been in the news lately.


Years ago, a Christian friend of mine asked how it could be that Ba'al is a pagan god Jews are told not to worship … yet one of our greatest spiritual leaders, the founder of Chasidism, was named the Ba'al Shem Tov? "Ba'al" is just a Middle-Eastern word that means "lord" or "master," I explained, so you can see why it ended up being the name of a god. But the Ba'al Shem Tov, who lived in the 1700s, was the Master of the Good Name, so called because he was said to be able to invoke God's name to cause miracles. We use the word in Hebrew for many things, from a ba'al teshuva (one who repents) to a ba'al habayit (head of household), just meaning "one who does, or is in charge of," that given thing.


If your agent calls you this, he or she most likely means "Bubbe," Yiddish for "dear one." Accordingly, it's also the Yiddish word for "grandma" (here's mine). This other spelling is used as a nickname for a former governor of Arkansas and his neighbors and a character from Forrest Gump.


Said with the "ch" in "cholocate," it's a kind of tea from India. But pronounced with the "ch" from "Chanukah," it is Hebrew for "life." Written in Hebrew, it can sometimes be mistaken for other things as well.

Essanay Studios

This movie studio was founded in 1907 in Chicago by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson and named for their last initials, "S" and "A," but stylized Essanay. It just happens to sound like "essen," Yiddish for "food."

Funky Cold Medina

This was a 1989 rap hit by Ton Loc about a made-up love potion; the song was basically a rewrite of the 1959 Clovers hit "Love Potion #9" (by Jewish songwriters Lieber and Stoller). The much older word "medina" is Hebrew for "country," as in Medinat Yisrael. (The song itself was parodied for Chanukah).


While the Ks in knish and knaidel are pronounced, and the Gs are pronounced in this game's name, it's just the words "ping" and "pong" spelled backward. It's still a fun game, if a loud one.

Jerusalem artichoke

The root "gryo" means to rotate, and "sol" is an ancient name for the sun. So something that rotates with the sun is a "girasole," at least in Italian. What does this? A sunflower, the root of one variety of which some say resembles an artichoke, and it can be eaten as a vegetable. It's not surprising that English speakers heard "girasole" as "Jerusalem."

Jerusalem cricket

This southwestern U.S. insect has a face that some think looks like a skull. Christian missionaries, in translating is name from Spanish, related that to Calvary, or "Skull Hill," where Jesus was crucified, so they named this bug after the Holy City. (I'm not saying this makes sense, just that it happened.)

Joshua tree

Many years before it was a hit U2 album, this desert plant was so named by Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree's upstretched branches reminded them of Joshua reaching his hands up to the sky in prayer.


Even before Gru of Despicable Me unleashed the Twinkie-shaped horde upon us all -- easily his most fiendish act of supervillainy -- Dr. No and others had more than 10 minions making up a potential minyan in their lairs.


"Marrano" is Spanish for "pig," and so, unfortunately, this became the slur heaped on Jews who converted to Christianity under the Inquisition. Today, they prefer the term "Conversos." Spelled Murano, it's an Italian town famed for its glassware, and also a Nissan car model (see below).


The Yiddish word that means "the pride derived from your children's or student's achievements" should be spelled "nachas" to avoid confusion with tortilla chips covered in toppings.


The automaker's name originated during the 1930s as a Tokyo Stock Exchange abbreviation for holding company Nihon Sangyo. The Jewish month of Nisan is quite a bit older in origin.

Rose of Jericho

This is the name of several plants that grow in the Middle East but do not look very rose-like; at most, one kind has small white flowers. These plants do have the feature of seeming to be dead while in a dormant state, then to "come back alive" in the rainy season. For this ability, they are also known as "rescurrection plants."


Pronounced "shee-va," it's one of the principal Hindu dieties. Said " shiv-uh," it's the Jewish mourning period, traditionally seven days after a death, derived from "sheva," the Hebrew word for "seven."

These Jewish-sounding things are, in fact, Jewish:


Not an alternate spelling of chuppah, this is a bird with a fancy crest of feathers and a cry that sounds like its name (but probably vice-versa). It's very Jewish, as birds go -- it's mentioned in the Torah and was recently named the official bird of the State of Israel.

Mandelbrot set

"Mandelbrot" means "almond bread" in Yiddish (it's not unlike biscotti) … but Benoit Mandelbrot was the Jewish (Polish-born, French and American) mathematician who came up with the formula for this psychedelic self-replicating pattern.


What else do you call a deli in Nashville?

Next month, we will meet some people whose names would suggest that they are Jewish, even though they are not.

Paul Wieder photo 375
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