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The word with ancient roots that swallowed its competitors whole

“Sinkhole” was chosen as the word of the year for 2022 by the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Let’s explore its origin.

The huge sinkhole on the Ayalon Highway that went viral in Israel in 2022.

Most Israelis remember the huge sinkhole that formed on the Ayalon Highway in 2022, but you may be surprised to learn of the word's ancient origins.

In 1847, the Swiss geologist Adolph von Morlot coined the scientific term dolina (דּוֹלִינָה), which describes a dome-shaped pit caused by the drift of the underground rock layer, as well as a depression in the ground caused by the collapse of such a pit. He took the word from the Serbo-Croatian language, the language of the region where he worked, where the word simply means "valley." During the second half of the 19th century, the word was published in scientific literature, and from there it was adopted by French and English scientists, and eventually was also accepted in Hebrew.

The first publication of the word in Hebrew was likely the description of the geologist Natan Shalem’s journey to Sela Ettam. Shalem was one of the first Hebrew explorers of the land, and his account appeared in Haaretz in January 1928: “We walked down to the abyss which opens up as a large funnel at the end of the cave. This abyss, called in foreign languages ‘dolina’, (a common phenomenon among very calcareous soils) was formed in ancient times, when water flowed inside the cave, leveling a path in the limestone layer and either getting lost in the depths or forming a fierce spring at the foot of the mountain.”

He defined the word balua ‘בלוע’, as “a small sink in the ground, like a sort of funnel, that is found in the earth’s crust."

Just as von Morlot borrowed the word ‘dolina’ from the local language of his surroundings, Shalem borrowed Balua from the Arabic spoken by the inhabitants of the country, who still call ‘dolinas’ balua (בלוע). Balua’s origins are Aramaic word, which was absorbed into Arabic in the seventh century after their conquest of the Middle East. Many Aramaic words remained in use when the speakers of the language were conquered by Arab, converted to Islam and adopted Arabic as their official language.

The same ancient Aramaic word is also recorded in Jewish sources, featuring in the Talmud. Among other places, it can also be found in the Sanhedrin tractate. Balua featured in a short story told by the well-known author of fiction Raba Bar Hana, who lived in the third century.

The story goes that he met an Arab who offered to show him the "swallowing of Korah" - that is, the pit that opened in the earth when the earth swallowed Korah and his followers, who conspired to overthrow Moses, as told in the book of Exodus.

'Balua / בָּלוּעַ was used occasionally in academic articles, but ‘dolina’ featured more frequently. The Academy of the Hebrew Language intervened in 1959, determining that the word should be written as balu-ah ‘בַּלּוּעָה’, and is best used under the assumption that the word best reflects its original Aramaic definition.

Indeed, this form began to appear alongside ‘dolina’ and ‘balua’. Shortly after, the word appeared in a new form, when the workers of the Society for the Protection of Nature began to call the largest sinkhole in Israel, located near Mount Meron, by the name "בולען". Evidence of this use appeared in the Society for the Protection of Nature publications from January 1963.

That year, the newspapers reported on an operation to investigate the site in collaboration with the Navy. "The Haaretz Information Society in the Western Galilee with military personnel and the Society for the Protection of Nature recently tried to check the depth of the sinkhole, it is the well-shaped crater on Mount Meron," Haaretz reported.

Within just a few years, the word "בולען" came to mean sinkhole. This is the form that appears, for example, in "Landscapes in our Country" by Uriah Ben-Israel, published by the Ministry of Education in 1966. This form, which became more and more common, received official recognition in 1971 when the Governmental Naming Committee gave the sites in the Hermon Mountains the names Mitzpe Bolan "מצפה בולען" and Emek Bolan "עמק בולען.

It seems that this form was adopted because "בולען" is easier to pronounce, and under the influence of folk etymology, according to which בולען got its name because it swallows something.

With the progressive drying up of the Dead Sea beginning in the 80s, and at an increasing rate in the 1990s, sinkholes began to appear along the coastal stretch of the Dead Sea. What was only initially interesting to naturalists quickly became newsworthy when the sinkholes, or "בולענים", as they were called in media reports, led to the abandonment of resorts and a military base along the coast.

One of the beautiful yet harmful Dead Sea sinkholes. Image credit: PHYS.ORG

At the beginning of the 21st century, "בולען" was already a fairly popular word, and its rivals began to disappear. In March 2010, for example, Channel 2 reporter Azri Amram reported on a pothole that opened up in the Ayalon lanes and caused huge traffic jams, calling the hole in the road a "בולען". The appearance of such potholes on Israel's roads occurred throughout its years, but until then they were simply called "potholes".

Five years later in 2015, the word was approved by the Academy, and last week, thanks to the online vote, it was chosen as the word of the year for 2022.

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