The Grammarphobia Blog

Moses’ older sister

Q: I am enjoying Origins of the Specious, but I think that you and Stewart got the origin of “Miriam” wrong. The Talmud says the name derives from the Hebrew word mar, or bitter. Miriam was given that name because at the time of her birth the situation for the Hebrews in Egypt was the most bitter ever.

A: As with many ancient words, particularly those that come from even more ancient roots, linguists can only speculate as to the most probable or plausible origin of “Miriam.”

Our source for the roots of “Miriam” was the Oxford English Dictionary, which acknowledges that the etymology is “of uncertain origin.”

The OED speculates, however, that the Hebrew original “may be Amorite, with the meaning ‘gift (of God)’; compare the Akkadian root rym ‘to give as a gift’.”

This is why we hedged our statement about the origin of “Miriam” by writing that it “may have its origin in an ancient Amorite word meaning ‘gift of God.’”

Reading between the lines, it’s also possible to draw other inferences – that “Miriam” could be derived from roots meaning “gift of myrrh” or “bitter gift,” which would go along with the Talmudic interpretation.

You’ll note above that the Akkadian word rym meant to give. (Akkadian, the oldest Semitic language, existed as long ago as 2800 BC; here “Semitic” is a linguistic term, not an ethnic one.)

You’ll also note the mention of a possible connection with the word “myrrh.” It’s believed (though not certain) that “myrrh” came from the Akkadian word murra. Murra, according to the OED, was “an aromatic used in medicine, ritual, perfumery, and tanning.”

Similar words came to exist in later Semitic languages: Arabic (murr), Hebrew (mor), Aramaic (mora), and Syriac (mura), all meaning “myrrh” and all from an ancient Semitic base meaning “bitter.” This Semitic base is also thought to be the source of the Hebrew word mar (bitter).

In short, one can speculate, indeed MUST speculate, about the origin of “Miriam.” In cases like these, our practice has been to go with the best guess of our favorite etymological authority: the OED.

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