Translatable but Debatable
I understand a new version of Superman is due on screen next month. The story of Superman’s arrival is often compared with the story of Moses, but I think there’s also a parallel with the birth of Isaac. Particularly in the Smallville version of the story, there’s the impression that Superman appears on earth in a kind of kabbalistic big bang, or at least a little big bang, when the tension between a righteous couple’s love and their childlessness resounds to the heavens.
As a term meaning “childless,” the word ערירי (ariri) is first found where God promises to reward Abram generously and Abram asks what the point of any reward is with no one to bequeath it to: מה־תתן־לי ואנכי הולך ערירי (“what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless” — King James).
On the one hand it’s not the sort of response you’d expect to hear from a childless man today, for example from some elderly bachelor offered a prize on a quiz show. I think people’s thinking has shifted a little from the future to the present. Generally when you hear about someone ariri in the Hebrew media now — correct me if I’m wrong — it’s an aged person who, unlike Abram in Genesis, not only lacks heirs but lives alone, בגפו (b’gapo) as we say in Hebrew, and often has no relatives and no significant material resources to make the years more bearable.
The Even Shoshan Hebrew-to-Hebrew dictionary lists two meanings for ariri. It lists חשוך בנים (childless) as a meaning that goes back to the Bible, and then it quotes later sources — the medieval poets Shmuel Hanagid and Moshe Ibn-Ezra, and the Zionist-era writers Bialik and Ahad Haam — as adding the borrowed meanings of גלמוד (which Babylon translates to English as “lonely, celibate, lonesome, solitary, lorn”) and בודד (“lonely, solitary, isolated, lonesome” among other meanings).
The biggest Hebrew-to-English dictionary I have is the Alcalay, and not surprisingly it gives the most definitions for ariri: “Childless; barren; forsaken, lonely, solitary.” Babylon gives “celibate, lonely, alone; childless,” allowing itself to add the absence of a spouse to the absence of kids.
If we think of a case where the word ariri is to be understood as meaning “without family,” or at least with no family that can be called on to help out, the ugly word “familyless” suggests itself in English. It doesn’t seem to exist in any traditional dictionary, but Wiktionary, which is open to public editing, includes both “familyless” and “familylessness.” And the word has credentials. There’s a passage in Moby Dick where Melville writes that “the houseless, familyless old man staggered off a vagabond in crape.”
Some writers — but none of Melville’s caliber that I found — consider the spelling “famililess” more reasonable. A paper called “The Informal Support System of the Famililess Elderly: Who Takes Over?” was presented to the Gerontological Society in 1978. But unlike “familyless,” “famililess” scores not the merest blip on Google’s Ngram viewer.
If you’d asked me, I would have said that “unfamilied” is the best-based alternative. However, it also seems to be ignored by the traditional dictionaries even though it’s used by such known authors as Harold Bloom, Edward Bulwer Lytton, and (in a letter) Iris Murdoch. Bloom writes that Edgar Allan Poe’s “anonymous and unfamilied heroes can of course be explained away as the self-projections of their orphaned and disinherited author.”
Not even Webster’s Third International, the unabridged, includes “familyless,” “famililess,” or “unfamilied.” What do you think? Do you like any of them, or none, or some alternative? Please feel free to comment below on what it means in Hebrew, English, or both to be ariri. Or write me at ]]