I apologize I don't know how to read Amharic or Ge'ez well (at all) [I am most certainly only an amateur at linguistics], and my Hebrew and Arabic are also poor. But I can't help but wonder if the the South Semitic/Ethiopic words "falasha" and/ or "falash [mura]" share the same triliteral root P[h]|L|S, as ف|ل|س/ or פ|ל|ש derive the words Palestine, Philistine, etc.

I ask because most sources today (for instance, the Wikipedia page on Beta Israel says:

The derogatory term Falasha, which means 'landless', 'wanderers', was given to the community in the 15th century by the Emperor Yeshaq I, and today its use is avoided because its meaning is offensive. Zagwe, referring to the Agaw people of the Zagwe dynasty, among the original inhabitants of northwest Ethiopia, is considered derogatory, since it incorrectly associates the community with the largely pagan Agaw.

However, the Agaw people clearly included some Jewry at this time; and it seems far more likely it originates from shared triliteral root rather than, for example, the suggested relation (under Texts, on the same Beta Israel page) of "Fālasfā" to the Indo-European derived "philosophy (by way of "sophos").

I have no doubt that in one place or another, perhaps many places, the term is or was derogatory. But the text I cite above has no citation for "falasha" meaning "landless", etc., and the rest of the paragraph is in passive voice, rendering it unclear where or when "its use is avoided because its meaning is offensive".

So: is this word avoided, as such, in Israel (where most formerly Ethiopian Jews now live)? Or s it also avoided in Eritrea and Ethiopia?

Why would the a word for "landless" be offensive? I assume it is offensive in the way the "the n-word" is offensive, not in the way "the f-word" is offensive? Is it offensive across time periods, cultures, languages, and ethnicities?

Put another way, should this word be considered "offensive" in all of English, Modern Hebrew, Ancient Hebrew, Arabic, Tigre, Tigrinya, liturgical Geʽez, and Amharic?

Or is it offensive now, simply because it conflates Jews from, lets call it, "Greater Canaan", with Palestinians or Philistines?

1 Answer 1


Falasha does indeed mean emigrant and derive from the Semitic root p-l-š (“migrate, invade”).

However, it is less clear that Palestine/Philistine does. The Hebrew Peleshet (“Philistia”) is also attested as Pilistu/Palashtu in Akkadian and P-l-s-t/P-r-s-t in Egyptian. While it is tempting to associate the name with the invasion of the Sea People, it is more likely an endonym of uncertain origin. Suggested etymologies include the Illyrian locality Palaeste or a corruption of the Greek phyle histia ('tribe of the hearth').

As an aside, while deriving from Peleshet, the Greek Παλαιστίνη Palestine may have also been influenced by the Greek word παλαιστής (“wrestler/adversary”).

  • Do we know of any attested endonyms for the "Sea People", and is the "Sea People" culture still considered to have produced the Philistine cities directly? I recall there is some evidence (I'm forgetting where) of a name like "Goliath" being attested rather early, but I believe it as at that point there was already evidence of it being a rather Semitic culture. Recorded in a Semitic writing system, at least. Does Akkadian have quadriliteral roots? Or is the idea that it was a loan word from Egyptian? Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 9:43
  • Good questions all. I’m afraid I don’t know much more about the Philistine language than the summary at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philistine_language and elsewhere. Akkadian does have some quadriradicals, but then so does Hebrew, and if the name is originally from the (possibly Indo-European) Philistine language then that’s a moot point.
    – Uri Granta
    Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 9:53
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    The OED are wrong on this one. There’s no such word in Amharic as falasha (whatever exactly that’s meant to represent) – the closest equivalent is fälasi, the regular participle from the verb fälläsä ‘migrate’, and it’s worth noting that a fälasi is an emigrant more than an immigrant. According to Wiktionary, Ge’ez has fälaša, which would be a more likely source than the Amharic. Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 13:15
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    Here's a book for reference: Hebrew Cognates in Amharic,1969, Wolf Leslau. The two words in question, ፈለስ fälläsä and פלש palaš are found on p. 39 in Amharic to Hebrew index and on p. 99 in Hebrew to Amharic index.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 14:36
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    @GeoffNixon: While Akkadian verb roots rarely have more than three consonants (and the few exceptions are mostly recognizable as lexicalized Š/D/N stems of triliterals), Akkadian noun morphology is a lot more diverse and flexible, especially when it comes to loanwords (of which Akkadian has many, particular from Sumerian, which was a non-Semitic language) and proper names. But Pilistu would actually fit the Akkadian root system quite nicely anyway, as a feminine noun with the root P-L-S and the feminine marker T. Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 21:07

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