or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Native Son

In the letters section accompanying this Salon.com story by Neal Pollack about, among other things, circumcision, a (let's face it) minor matter that some people with too much time on their hands make a huge hullaballoo over, is the following letter:

Pollack says "I was Bar Mitzvahed..."
Bar Mitzvah isn't a verb, it's a descriptor for Jewish men who have been called to the Torah. One isn't Bar Mitzvahed, one becomes a Bar Mitzvah.

Well, not in Hebrew, maybe. Here in the English language, we do that sort of thing all the time. (I see I'm still overusing italics. I'll try to beat that habit in the next few days. Thank you for your patience.)

Here's the definition of "bar mitzvah" from Answers.com:

1. A 13-year-old Jewish boy, considered an adult and responsible for his moral and religious duties.
2. The ceremony that initiates and recognizes a boy as a bar mitzvah.

tr.v., -vahed, -vah·ing, -vahs.
To confirm in the ceremony of bar mitzvah.

And right here on Judaism 101, from people who sound as if they ought to know:

"Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment." "Bar" is "son" in Aramaic, which used to be the vernacular of the Jewish people. "Mitzvah" is "commandment" in both Hebrew and Aramaic.... Technically, the term refers to the child who is coming of age, and it is strictly correct to refer to someone as "becoming a bar (or bat) mitzvah." However, the term is more commonly used to refer to the coming of age ceremony itself, and you are more likely to hear that someone is "having a bar mitzvah."

Indeed you are! "Bar mitzvah" has become a noun meaning the ceremony, and what's more, it's become a verb describing what's done at that ceremony. This is normal in English, where we happily make a word--even one borrowed intact from another language--serve as multiple parts of speech with no visible change (except the usual verb/adverb suffixes and, in this case, a loss of capitalization).

The letter-writer doesn't have to like it. I suppose if I were more prescriptivist than I am, I might not like it, either. But it's perfectly common, everyday English usage--in fact, the verb and the noun referring to the ceremony are far more common in English than is the stricter usage. There's no point in saying "Bar Mitzvah isn't a verb" when it demonstrably is, at least in our language.


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