Innovations in Hebrew and the Dictionary

While living in Paris, when he was first taken by the idea of the revitalization of the Hebrew language, Ben-Yehuda spoke about the lack of Hebrew jargon for foreign concepts, and began to renew Hebrew words to fill the vacuum. Appropriately, the first word Ben-Yehuda created was “millon” for dictionary, which replaced the construction “sefer millim” (a book of words) which had been used until then as a translation of the German “Woerterbuch.” Additionally, Ben-Yehuda began to list words from Hebrew literature of all periods as a basis for an overarching Hebrew dictionary.

After three unsuccessful publication attempts (in 1887, 1895, and 1900-1905) his dictionary, the Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, began to be published in Berlin in 1908. The dictionary was published in stages from 1908-1959, and was planned for 16 volumes, with an additional introductory volume. Five volumes were published before the start of World War I, and these were the only ones Ben-Yehuda saw before his death on December 16, 1922.

Ben-Yehuda did edit the sixth and seventh volumes prior to his death, which were printed posthumously. The eighth and ninth volumes were edited by Moshe Tsvi Segal, who was Professor of Bible and Semitic linguistics at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The remaining volumes, including the introduction, were edited by Naftali Hertz Tur-Sinai (né Harry Torczyner), who was Professor of Hebrew Language at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the President of the Language Committee, and later the first President of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

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Ben-Yehuda also published a pocket Hebrew-Yiddish-Russian dictionary in 1901 and a larger Russian-Hebrew-Yiddish dictionary with Yehuda Grazovsky in 1907.

Among the many hundreds of words Ben-Yehuda is credited with creating are “bubba” (doll), “glida” (ice cream), “zehut” (identity), “havita” (omelet), “haydak” (bacteria), and “rishmi” (official).

For more examples of Ben-Yehuda’s innovations, see:

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