I Have my Ups and Downs…

16 03 2008

A teacher of mine once joked that in Hebrew, any word can have one of four meanings:

1. The plain meaning;
2. The exact opposite of the plain meaning;
3. Something to do with sex;
4. A type of camel.

She wasn’t far off. The amount of words in the Bible that can also imply their opposite, have a dirty nuance, and relate (in some contexts) to something phenomenally specific is astounding. It is therefore some consolation to me, now that I am trying to write a translation of the Coptic “The Martyrdom of Isidoros” that the Coptic word for “up” also happens to mean “down”. Maybe that has something to do with the geographical placement of “Upper Egypt”, relative to “Lower Egypt”? Either way, it’s bloody fantastic.

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2 responses

29 03 2008
John Hobbins

Hi Simon, Your teacher, I think, is slightly off. I remember Jonas Greenfield telling that anecdote back in the days. He was quoting an Arabic lexicographer, I want to say Guillaume – but that’s probably wrong – with respect to Arabic. And the last option is: something to do with camels, parallel to something to do with sex. When you think about, that’s makes a lot of sense – for Arabic.

11 04 2008
Simon Holloway

Thanks, John.

Actually, my teacher was probably correct and I have simply remembered what she said poorly. She was only ever my teacher for one class (I sat in on a first year class while doing Honours because I wanted to hear how she went about teaching something in particular) and she delivered that anecdote to some amusement from her audience. I wrote it down, but quoted it here from memory.

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