By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 12, 2009

In modern Hebrew, nin means “great-grandson”. However, in the Bible, nin refers to son as in Abimelech’s request to Abraham: “Swear to me… that you will not deal falsely with me or with my nin [son] or grandchild” (Genesis 20:23)

The ancient Semitic meanings of nin are “fish” and “to sprout, increase”. In the early 20th century, there was some ambiguity regarding the use of nin. Many used nin for nephew, which was a kinship term absent in the Bible. Over the years, however, people came to use nin exclusively for great-grandchild.

There are some purists who bemoan the appropriation of a biblical term to refer to something other than its original meaning. Firstly, the practice can lead to misunderstandings of the text. For example, one might wonder why, in the above quotation, Abimelech mentions his great-grandchild before his grandchild. Secondly, some take offence at the deliberate transmutation of a biblical word to suit modern requirements.

One can argue both sides in the case for nin. On the one hand, nin in the sense of offspring refers to many generations of children, and therefore its usage as “great-grandchild” is not far-fetched. On the other hand, we could have muddled along just fine without this kinship term. Just look at English — great-grandchild is rather a mouthful, but people seem to manage it.

Last updated: 4:05pm, March 12 2009