Frog Crisis in Greece

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It's bad enough to have to weather a disastrous economic crisis, but now the Greeks are faced with a frog crisis.  Millions of migrating frogs — a veritable carpet of the slippery, slimy fellows — have closed down a major Greek highway near Thessaloniki.

I believe that the usual word for "frog" in modern Greek is batrachos, but all of Greece is referring to the current batrachian horde with the Biblical word tzfardei'a.  In so doing, I suppose they wish to recall the Biblical plague of frogs that God inflicted on Egypt (the second of ten plagues that he sent against the Egyptians).  In fact, the plague of frogs was meant as an attack on the Egyptian frog goddess Heqt, whose job it was to assist women in labor.


In ancient societies and in many modern cultures as well, frogs symbolize fertility because of the vast amount of eggs that they lay.  The description of the frog swarms (vesharatz) is reminiscent of the proliferation of the Israelites as vayishretzu.

The frog (tzfardei'a) is the only amphibian mentioned in the Bible, though the word may also have included the toad (which is karpadah in modern Hebrew).

Suffice it to say that the present Greek frog crisis is thought to be of biblical proportions.

[More on the role of the frog in ancient Hebrew lore may be found here.]

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31 Comments »

  1. bloix said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

    Why do the Greeks need to evoke biblical frogs when they have their own classical Frogs?

  2. Private Zydeco said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 3:40 am

    Do they or don't they, those bears? It were an unsurpassedly influential printmedia epidemic which would induce every last citizen of the Greek populus to this putative evocation (not invocation?), but that is perhaps splitting hairs. Very, very fine hairs.

  3. John Walden said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 3:53 am

    brekekekex-koax-koax.

  4. Athanassios Protopapas said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 6:11 am

    The modern word is βάτραχος /'vatraxos/ (masculine; plural βάτραχοι /'vatraçi/), more colloquially βατράχι /va'traçi/ (neuter; plural βατράχια /va'traça/). I have no idea where the biblical word report came from, I am unable to trace it in online Greek news, including various video testimonies. The usual statement is έβρεξε βατράχια (it rained frogs), which sounds quite appropriate to me.

  5. Q. Pheevr said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    It looks to me as if the tzfardei'a label may have originated with the Orthodox Jewish news site Vos iz Neias, which applied it to an AP story about the Greek frogs. I can't tell whether it's being picked up in Greece at all.

  6. cameron said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 9:14 am

    I've got to say, the phrase "batracian horde" has a lovely Lovecraftian ring to it.

  7. Q. Pheevr said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    In any case, since eCanadaNow calls צפרדעים is a Greek word, I'd take their report on Greek usage with a grain of salt.

  8. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    Batrachos is certainly the classical Greek word for frog, being used both in the title of Aristophanes' play and in the Batrachomyomachia ascribed to Homer. I presume it is used in the Greek bible (the Septuagint) as well. I take it that tzfardei'a is Hebrew, so I'm not sure why Greeks should use the word.

  9. arthur waldron said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    I am bowled over by this display of erudition. It reassures one about the State Of The University. But someone better ask the Econ Department what is going to rain on us.

  10. KevinM said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    Presumably, the Hebrew is used because the Greeks are experiencing a plague of frogs, as in Exodus. The classical allusions (e.g. Aristophanes) have no such connotation.

  11. Andrew Greene said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    Aside from the question of whether eCanadaNow got confused by picking up a headline written in Yeshivish, I have a nit to pick with the transliteration, which I only mention because this is LanguageLog, after all.

    The vowel at the end of צפרדע is a "furtive patach", a פתח גנובה, since it's under an 'ayin. That means that the vowel is pronounced before the consonant, not after, and the transliteration should be tzəfardeya`, not tzfardei'a.

  12. Jens Fiederer said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    And all this time people have been calling Frenchmen "frogs"….this might be changing!

  13. avirr said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    That explanation for the rain of frogs is dubious. There is no need to posit anti-Egyptian fertility goddess propaganda: there are modern known examples of frogs and other amphibians being picked up by winds and then dropped when the air slowed down.

    Weird weird rains

    BBC Weather – Freak Incidents

    It's raining frogs in Serbia

    rain of tadpoles

    So the other explanation is more theological than scientific.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    The Septuagint does seem to use batrachos (inflected various ways, of course) in the frog-heavy 8th chapter of Exodus:

    http://www.myriobiblos.gr/bible/ot/chapter.asp?book=2&page=8.

  15. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    KevinM: Yes, but why should the Greeks, who are used to reading the bible in Greek, suddenly start quoting from the Hebrew?

  16. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    "In fact, the plague of frogs was meant as an attack on the Egyptian frog goddess Heqt, whose job it was to assist women in labor"? In fact? I gather that the good people at Kolel (linked above) believe that God sent the plague of frogs as an attack on the goddess Heqt — some Christian theologians think the same — but "in fact" seems an odd label for speculating on a deity's motivations.

  17. Carl said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    I'm with John Walden and Aristophanes on this one. :)

  18. Zackary Sholem Berger said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

    Here's an etymology for the Hebrew word, though I wonder if someone has come up with a better one in the meantime.

  19. latinist said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    I don't know about other ancient and modern cultures, but in Ancient Greece, frogs were thought of as foolish; they appear this way in fables, the same way foxes are clever and wolves rapacious. Thus, the frog who invites the mouse to dinner (and accidentally drowns him), and the frogs who kept asking for a king, then a more active king, and ended up being eaten by a stork. I don't know of any classical references to frogs as especially fertile, though there may well be some.

  20. Private Zydeco said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

    Language Frogs!

  21. jeffrey said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    Ugh. A few years ago I was doing some bicycle touring and came across a half-mile long stretch of highway in Kansas that was crawling (hopping?) with frogs… too many to avoid. Very, very traumatic.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

    @Private Zydeco: Language Frogs thank Log that Language Loggers are King Log.

  23. Michael Koplow said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    The eCanadaNow item is weird. Let's assume the word is Greek (which it isn't, but from eCN's point of view it is). "All across Greece the frog incident is being hailed by the Greek word []." First, why "hailed"? Second, why wouldn't Greeks in Greece discuss it using a Greek word? Hardly seems newsworthy. Third (actually 2', not 3), they don't say anything about why this word is special–no mention of it invoking a biblical plague.

    A possible but unlikely reconciliation of the weirdnesses: Maybe "hailed" was meant to evoke the biblical plague of hail, causing the sentence to indirectly evoke the plague of frogs.

    Not likely, as I said, but possible.

  24. vanya said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    I'm kind of surprised Mair hasn't posted a correction by now. The assertion "all of Greece is referring to the current batrachian horde with the Biblical word tzfardei'a" seems to be demonstrably untrue – just confusion by eCanadaNow.

  25. Michael Koplow said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    Yikes! I wrote "no mention of it invoking [sic] a biblical plague." I meant "evoking," and I apologize to all.

  26. Sili said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    That explanation for the rain of frogs is dubious. There is no need to posit anti-Egyptian fertility goddess propaganda: there are modern known examples of frogs and other amphibians being picked up by winds and then dropped when the air slowed down.

    Brian Dunning focused on fish in the relevant Skeptoid episode, but I think that it's equally unlikely that frogs &c will make it to the ground without going *splat*. Also were any of these atmospheric frogs clogging gutters?

    As I was reminded just the other day, it's fascinating how the Egyptians seem to have completely missed all these terrible plagues and failed to make any note of them whatsoever. </snark>

  27. Victor Mair said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    Thanks for the helpful observations and refinements. Nonetheless, I'm still puzzled by just why the non-Greek word "tzfardei'a" got dragged into this Greek calamity. My Language Log post was made chiefly to solicit the collective wisdom of our followers in helping to figure out this conundrum, and — in that sense — it was partially successful. But it wasn't just eCanada that evoked the Biblical word; I found the same claim on scores of websites and blogs. Here are some samples:

    http://www.vosizneias.com/56330/2010/05/26/thessalonik-newest-greece-crisis-millions-of-frogs-tzfardeia-shuts-down-major-greek-highway/

    (see especially the comments)

    http://jewishupdates.com/2010/05/26/thessalonik-newest-greece-crisis-tzfardeia-millions-of-frogs-shuts-down-major-greek-highway-2/

    There may be a hidden agenda in all of this (the use of the charged word "hailed" indicates an approbatory animus; whoever chose it may have been engaged in wishful thinking or may have been reflecting the sentiments of only a certain portion of the Greek population "[a]ll across Greece").

    Oh, by the way, the frog saga in northern Greece isn't over yet; it's happening again this weekend:

    http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/05/27/weekend-forecast-froggy-threat-traffic-horde-frogs-blocks-greek-road/

    Let's see if anyone — inside or outside of Greece — makes reference to a "Greece Crisis 'Tzfardei'a'" again before the frogs cease to clog the Egnatia highway.

  28. Alan said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 6:31 am

    Both the sites you linked, "vosizneias" and "jewishupdates", are maintained by and published for members of [ultra-]orthodox Jewish communities.

    The main resonance of the word "Tzfardei'a" to someone from those communities (especially non-native-speakers of Modern Hebrew in the Diaspora) is the biblical plague of frood. It's listed in a series with the other plagues in the Book of Exodus ("sefer shemot") in the course of the traditional Passover Seder ceremony.

    Dam – Tzfardei'a – Kinim – Arov – Dever….
    Blood – Frogs – Lice – Beasts – Murraine….

    It seems as simple as people grabbing the funny sounding word from the Jews, not knowing where it came from, and assuming it was Greek.

  29. Alan said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 6:31 am

    Woops, "frogs" obviously, not "frood".

  30. Robert said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    Hoopy.

  31. Frog Freak said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Although late to this discussion, Gordon Wasson in his monumental "Mushrooms Russia and History" (now in public domain) mentions numerous other ancient Greek words for frog, especially in relation to toads and toadstools.

    Cheers

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