Monday, October 10, 2011

L'shana Tova

Last week, were any of you wished a "L'shana Tova?" I was. The typical form was something like:
Best wishes to you and your family for a L'shana Tova;  or
L’Shana Tova to you and your family
It's easy to explain the origins of this usage.

Our traditional greeting at Rosh Hashana is "L'shana Tova" a shortening of L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem. The L in L'shana means "for", and the full greeting is "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year" (Hebrew word order is not the same as English word order. A literal translation produces the Yoda-esque "For a good year, you shall be inscribed and sealed")

To Hebrew speakers, however, the L'shana Tova usage recorded above sounds like an error. You wish someone a Shana Tova, ie a "Good Year",  not a L'Shana Tova.  The prescriptive in me cringes at this usage, while my inner descriptivist knows that's not fair. Over time, languages, and their rules are going to change, and for a variety of reasons, some good, most bad.

In English,  similar corruptions have happened countless times. Some of the examples given in Dhirendra Verma's Word Origins include:
  • Hoax is a corruption of hocus, itself a shortening of hocus pocus, which is itself a corruption of Hoc est enim corpus meum the Latin phrase recited by Roman Catholic priests at the moment the wafer is transformed into the body of Jesus.
  • So Long is a corruption of salaam, the Arabic farewell. British soldiers picked it up while serving in Arab speaking lands. (and salaam itself is a corruption of ma'sallama, meaning "goodby")
  • Turkey might be a corruption of the Hebrew tukki, meaning peacock.   
The small takeaway point is that cringing over unfamiliar usages is a mistake. Anything living and vibrant is going to change, and the reason behind the change won't always be something noble. People are imperfect. We make mistakes, and those mistakes have a way of becoming institutionalized.

This knowledge is part of what makes it so impossible for me to fall into line behind Rabbi Alderstan when he calls for Rabbi Kanefsky's expulsion from Judaism. True, its nowadays normative to say she lo asani isha, but once upon a time some women said she lo asani ish and in another time and place no one said anything at all. Plauusibly, the whole practice was established in imitation of the Greek philosophers. So,  how important can it really be?

A much more important takeaway point can be found here

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