The name “Mitzrayim” raises three questions:
1) Did the ancient Egyptians use this name as well?
2) Why the plural-style ending in the name?
3) Can we figure out what the name means?
As to the first question, this was not the name used by the ancient Egyptians. I will discuss the names they used below. But “Mitzrayim” or some variant of it was the name used in the other Semitic languages, e.g., Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic and Akkadian. (Egyptian is not a Semitic language.) In Arabic, the name is “Mitzr,” even today.
As to the plural-style ending, a widespread suggestion is that it reflects Upper and Lower Egypt. (“Upper” is the usual term for southern Egypt and “Lower” is the usual term for northern Egypt.) But not everyone views that “yod-mem” ending as reflecting a plural.
A few times in Tanach the country is called “Matzor.” Is this a later shortened version of Mitzrayim? A poetic form? Or perhaps it is an earlier form of the name? Most sources I have seen take the position that it is a poetic form. But the Daat Mikra commentary is willing to suggest that “Matzor” reflects the original form of the name, since the Akkadian and Arabic forms of “Mitzrayim” do not have a “mem” ending. See their notes to II Kings 19:24.
Can we explain what the name “Mitzrayim” means? Since it was not used in Egypt and was used throughout the Mideast, most likely it is a Semitic name. But there is no root M-Tz-R in Tanach. We do have roots like Tz-Vav-Resh and Tz-Resh-Resh. These roots have meanings like “besiege, confine” and “distress.” (It is widely agreed that these roots are related.) Does Mitzrayim mean a “besieged/confined” region? a “distressed” one? These seem unlikely. Both these roots also have the meaning “show hostility to.” This also seems unlikely as an explanation for “Mitzrayim.”
There are other verses that support a meaning like “stronghold” for Tz-Vav-Resh. See Ps. 31:22 and 60:11 (“ir matzor”). Also, in Divrei Ha-Yamin we have “arei metzurot” (=strongholds) several times. Probably, the “besieged/confined” meaning expanded to an “entrenched/stronghold” meaning, i.e., able to withstand a siege. So perhaps “Mitzrayim” could mean the “entrenched” region that is able to withstand a siege. But this is just speculation.
In his Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, Hayim Tawil points out that Akkadian has a word whose root is M-Tz-R and whose meaning is “border.” He explains many of the M-Tz-R words in Tanach in this way. They are loanwords from the Akkadian root M-Tz-R: “border.” He does not mention the place name “Mitzrayim” in this entry. But the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament mentions a possible connection between “Mitzrayim” and this Akkadian word, which it says means “border, region.”
Of course, we know the word “metzarim” from Eichah 1:3: “The enemies of Judah reached her bein ha-metzarim.” The Soncino commentary explains: “This might be understood literally, as referring to the actual overtaking of the fugitives in narrow defiles; but probably the figurative sense of dangers and difficulties overtaking and hemming in the people is to be preferred.” Tawil suggests that the meaning here too is “borders,” based on the above word in Akkadian.
How did the ancient Egyptians refer to their own country? I have seen several different names that they used. One was pronounced something like “tawi.” It means the “two lands.” Most likely the reference is to Upper and Lower Egypt. Perhaps “Mitzrayim” is a translation of this, if the Akkadian word mentioned above means “region.” Another name that the ancient Egyptians used was “tamry,” meaning “land of the riverbank.” Finally, another name that the ancient Egyptians used was “Kemet,” which means “black land.” This probably refers to the fertile black soil of the Nile flood plains (as distinct from the “red land” of the desert). When the Greeks referred to this name, they dropped the last T, so it became something like “kemi.”
What is the origin of the words “chemistry” and “alchemy”? A mainstream view is that it is based on the pursuit of some such study in ancient Alexandria. The meaning would be: “the art of the black-land, Egypt.” See the post on “alchemy” at balashon.com. (The “al” is the Arabic definite article “the.” The balashon.com post considers a relation to “Cham,” the father of “Mitzrayim” (Gen. 10:6) but rejects it.)
What about the English name “Egypt”? This is derived from the ancient Greek “Aigyptos.” The Greek is derived from the Egyptian name for the city of Memphis: Het-kau-ptah, “castle of the ka (soul) of Ptah.” There was a temple to Ptah at Memphis. (Ptah was a major Egyptian deity.)
The word “Coptic” also derives from the ancient Greek “Aigyptos.”
Going back to “Mitzrayim,” there is another word used for part of Egypt in Tanach: “Patros.” It appears a few times. A mainstream view is that (at least in some verses) “Mitzrayim” is used for northern Egypt and “Patros” is used for southern Egypt. (At Gen. 10:14, “Patrusim” is listed as one of the sons of “Mitzrayim.”)
Finally, I would like to point out that our search for the meaning of “Mitzrayim” reminds me of a famous comment of R. Abraham ibn Ezra on “Tzafnat Paneach” (Gen. 41:45): “If the name is Egyptian, we do not know what it means. If it is a translation [into Hebrew], we do not know what Yosef was called.”
This would be a good place to point out a common misconception about the name “Palestine.” It is widely believed that this name originates from Roman times, in the early second century C.E. The truth is that this name is already used several times by Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E. (The use of the term “Palestine” for this area by the Greeks surely preceded him, even though we don’t have sources.) Of course, the name is related to the Philistines (“yoshvei pelashet,” Ex. 15:14). Most likely, the Greeks named the area based on the Philistines who lived on the coast, but then gradually applied the name to the interior as well. Prior to Herodotus, we have Egyptian sources beginning around 1150 B.C.E. that use variants of the name, and Akkadian sources in the centuries thereafter.
Mitchell First recommends that you read Herodotus and see how many references to biblical events and similarities to passages in the book of Esther you can find there. He can be reached at [email protected] Please visit his website rootsandrituals.org for more articles.