By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, August 7, 2008

Magevet, which means towel, is a prosaic word but it provides us with a brilliant example of the development of modern Hebrew. As with all Hebrew words, magevet has a three letter root - ngv or negev. Towels dry you off, making you as dry as the Negev desert.

Eliezer ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, coined the word magevet; however, the link between the Negev and verbs for drying goes back to the Talmud. As Avshalom Kor, a Hebrew language expert and jovial radio presenter in Israel, explains: the talmudic verb lehitnagev refers to drying off in the sun - without the aid of any cloth. Thus Mishnah Taharot (Mikvaot, 2:7) discusses one who leaves jugs out on the roof in order to "negev" them (lenagvan).

In choosing the word magevet and slightly altering the meaning of lenagev from drying out to using a towel or wiping, Ben Yehuda provided Hebrew speakers with a new word that had ancient roots, which typified the nature of modern Hebrew. Magevet was a great success. However, not every attempt to coin authentic Hebrew words caught on. For example, many European immigrants to Israel wore a "jacket", holding on the formality of their birthplace. Ben Yehuda suggested replacing the word "jacket" with yakovit - instead of Jack, why not use Ya'akov? It never caught on.

Last updated: 12:02pm, August 7 2008