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"Nothing and Not a Thing" Isn't Always the Story

If you follow our blog, you are surely familiar with the word 'כלום' and the phrase 'שום דבר'. But why the expression 'כלום ושום דבר' is correct?


The word כלום (klum) and the phrase שום דבר (shum davar) signify 'nothing' and 'nil' in our consciousness. Therefore, some wonder if in expressions like 'לא אכלתי כלום' (I ate nothing) and 'לא ביקשנו שום דבר' (we asked for nothing), there isn't a redundant double negation.


In fact, both כלום (klum) and שום דבר (shum davar) – which we inherited from the language of the sages – do not contain any negation at all. כלום (klum) means 'something', 'something minimal' (something, anything). Various theories about the origin of this word have been proposed. For example, some believe it is a transformation of the phrase 'כל מאום' (kol me'um) or 'כל מה' (kol mah). There's a popular explanation that 'lum' means an olive's pit, but this is baseless as the supposed word 'lum' is unknown and undocumented. All the hypotheses proposed so far have been rejected, and the origin of כלום (klum) remains a mystery.


The word שום (shum) in the phrase שום דבר (shum davar) is actually another form of the word שם (shem). It's known in our days in phrases like על שום (al shum), בשום אופן (beshum ofen), and in the causal word משום (mishum) (but for the purpose: לשם - l'shem). The form שום (shum) is used in the literature of the sages under Aramaic influence, and it's possible that the transition from the vowel e (שם - shem) to u (שום - shum) is also due to the similarity to the labial consonant m (similar to the vowel change of the conjunction 'and' before m: sweet). In phrases like שום דבר (shum davar), שום אדם (shum adam), the word שום (shum = shem) means 'any', 'some'. As Ben-Yehuda explains in his dictionary: "שום איש – anything called a man, any type of man".


So, כלום (klum) and שום דבר (shum davar) signify something small. Therefore, 'לא ביקשנו שום דבר' (we asked for nothing) means 'we didn’t ask for anything at all', 'we didn’t even ask for something small'. Similarly, 'לא אכלתי כלום' (I ate nothing) means 'I didn’t eat anything', 'I didn’t eat even something small'. This sentence is structurally similar to the English "I didn't eat anything", not "I ate nothing" (which does not require the negation of the verb).


Already in the literature of the sages, the word כלום (klum) and phrases like שום דבר (shum davar) are mainly used in negative contexts. For example: "שלא חיסר בעולמו כלום" (he did not lack anything in his world), "אין בכך כלום" (there is nothing in this), "ואין מכיר שום אדם" (and no one recognizes anyone), "שלא היה בהם שום דופי" (there was no deceit in them). However, we can also find other uses, such as: "שמא עשה כלום" (perhaps he did something), "הנהנה כלום מן העולם" (who enjoys anything from the world). In our time, positive constructions are even rarer, and these expressions are typically used only in negative structures.


As mentioned, in phrases like 'לא כלום' (not nothing) and 'לא עשיתי שום דבר' (I did nothing), there is no double negation, yet double negation as such is not prohibited in our language. Such a structure is occasionally found in the literature of the sages, such as "אין דנין לא בערב שבת ולא בערב יום טוב" (we do not judge neither on the eve of Sabbath nor on the eve of a festival) from Mishna Sanhedrin 4:1. The word כלום (klum) also frequently appears in the literature of the sages in a structure of double negation – "לא עשה ולא כלום" (he did nothing at all) from Tosefta Demai 4:5 and others, similar to "לא עשה כלום" (he did nothing) from Mishna Terumot 2:2 and many others.

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