Ofer S. Beit-Halachmi
How to Say Virus in Hebrew: What's God Got to Do With It?
In 1892 the Russian biologist Dmitri Ivanovsky filtered crushed leaf extracts from infected tobacco plants and suggested that the infection might be caused by a toxin produced by bacteria. Six years later, the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck repeated the experiments and became convinced that the filtered solution contained a new form of infectious agent. He called it: contagium vivum fluidum (soluble living germ). He also re-introduced the word virus (from Latin – Poison) that used to describe "agent that causes infectious disease" in the 18th century.
At the same time the Hebrew language awakened from its 1500 years of beauty sleep and looked for a word in Hebrew for the new term. The first attempts at a Hebrew translation of the word virus are found in the 19th century Hebrew press and dictionaries. These attempts are translations for the original Latin – Poison. Two words where used: the Biblical words Tare'lah or Ra'al (רעל poison - Isaiah 31 and Psalms 40) and a word from the Mishnaic Hebrew (from the 1st to the 3rd centuries) E'res (ארס venom).
The direct translation of the word virus into words in Hebrew for poison had a short life in Hebrew as it did in medicine. At the end of the century, scientists distinguished between toxins and virus infections. The word virus in English changed its meaning and the Hebrew words Ra'al and E'res, no longer fit and could no longer be used.
The Hebrew language, old and new, often imported words from other languages as needed (Pardes פרדס Paradise from Persian for example) and so the new translation for the word ‘virus’ was actually the Hebrew transliteration of – virus – וירוס. The most authoritative body on Hebrew language decisions, still active today, The “Hebrew Language Committee” (Vaʻad ha-lashon ha-ʻivrit), in 1948 published a list of Hebrew words for microbiology terms and determined virus (וירוס) as an official Hebrew word.
As is often the case in other languages, words in the Hebrew language have their own journeys. In a Hebrew dictionary for agriculture published in 1939 in Tel-Aviv, the author M. Zagorodsḳy use the word Nagif (נְגִיף ) for virus. Some years later, in August 1942, M. Zadman M.D. wrote a newspaper column about viruses and used the same new word combinded with his knowledge of infection and created the term “the infiltrating Nagif ” (הנגיף המסתנן). In the Israeli Hebrew press of the 1940s occasionally the word Nagif, appears, but always with the explanation (‘virus’) in parenthesis.
We can't be sure that the word Nagif was an original creative idea of Mr. Zagorodsḳy, but it is a brilliant example of a linguistic journey from the Hebrew Bible to modern Israeli medicine. In Biblical Hebrew the verb Lingof (לִנְגֹּף) means for “to hurt” or “to strike;” and the nouns from the same root Negef (נֶגֶף) or Magefah (מַּגֵּפָה) refer to a wound or disease that is brought upon a person or a people usually by God. For a example, in Exodus 8:2 (Shmot 7:27 in the Hebrew Bible,) the common English translation for the word Nogef (נֹגֵף) is plague:
“If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country.”
In the 1950s Israel experienced a Polio epidemic. During the epidemic the newspapers repeatedly used the Biblical word for plague – Magefah (מַּגֵּפָה) and the Nagif for virus. One can assume that the use of the Biblical word for a plague to refer to an epidemic made use of a word from the same root – Nagif(נְגִיף) for virus very natural. Hebrew speakers do use virus – וירוס for computer virus and not the Hebrew word Nagif (נְגִיף), which supports our assumption.
The new word Nagif that was created from the Biblical plague that God brought upon the Egyptians, became the preferred word for virus by Hebrew speakers. The Israelites in the Biblical story, was ordered to take an action and defend themselves from the Magefa (plague). We, hopefully, will take soon the action of vaccination against the Nagif.
* I would like to thank Ronit Gadish from the Hebrew Academy and Rabbi Rachel Sabath and Ori Resheff for their help in writing this article.