The Brothers Grimm, Goethe, and Biblical Hebrew
The Academy of the Hebrew Language has been increasing its web presence recently. They have an updated web site, along with a Twitter account, and a Facebook page. Today they posted a link to a post (Heb.) from their website that explains the history behind the modern Hebrew phrase, כחוט השני.
The phrase occurs twice in the Tanakh (Joshua 2:18; Song of Songs 4:3). In the Bible the meaning is a “crimson chord.” In modern Hebrew the meaning is “a characteristic sign” (Alcalay) or “the connecting thread” (Oxford). So what happened in between the different uses in Biblical and Modern Hebrew? While they weren’t writing tales for children, the Brothers Grimm also found the time to begin work on Deutsches Wörterbuch, a historical dictionary of the German language. In that dictionary they identified the German author Goethe as the first person to use the term “red thread” (roter Faden) to mean a central theme or something essential.
The German phrase eventually made its way into modern Hebrew. According to the Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy, the first use of the modern Hebrew phrase is from 1895 and can be found in the editor’s introduction to the collection of Ahad Ha’am’s essays, Al Parashat Derachim, where it is written, “בכל הספר יעבר כחוט השני רעיון עיקרי אחד…”