Sunday, June 23, 2013

Uh, That's Not the Etymology of "Sephora".

The internet is quite certain that "Sephora" is actually a mash-up of two other words: "sephos" and "Zipporah". This may be an intuitively pleasing explanation of the etymology of the word "Sephora", but it does not stand up to scrutiny.

Although Sephora's website has previously claimed that "sephos" is the ancient Greek word for beauty, this does not appear to be factually accurate. Indeed, if you google search, "sephos beauty", you'll merely find a long string of sources about the origin of the name Sephora. The actual Greek word for beauty was "kallos" ("kalos" being the adjective). The word in Koine Greek, which is the dialect that was in favor in the 4th century BC, around the time of Alexander the Great, was "hōraios".

Source: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-qaRQeyj5bz0/UZfXFzxf8WI/AAAAAAAAASQ/kzoVMnNjxhM/s320/sephora.jpg
The word "sephos" sounds to me to be a bastardization of the word "sofia", which is the Greek word for wisdom. (The word philosophy is philo-, meaning love [just as a bibliophile is a book lover] + -sofia; it means, of course, "love of wisdom".) Obviously, this doesn't make any sense for a makeup company whatsoever. As far as I can tell, the word "sephos" is completely made up.

The second half of Sephora's name supposedly comes from the Biblical character Zipporah, the wife of Moses. The reason given is because Zipporah was so, so beautiful, proponents of this theory claim. Unfortunately, this also doesn't square up with the evidence. There is no Biblical mention of Zipporah's physical appearance. The only place she appears in Exodus is a brief story about Moses scaring away some asshole shepherds and consequentially being offered Zipporah's hand in marriage by her father (Exodus 2:18-2:20), and a graphic but mostly unexplained anecdote where Zipporah circumcises her son Gershom with a stone and touches Moses's feet with it so that God doesn't kill him. The book of Numbers also notes that Moses's wife was a Cushite, meaning she was probably from modern-day Saharan Africa (Note: some sources suggest that Moses had two wives and that Zipporah was a Kenite, from modern-day Sudan). This is the only indication in the Bible as to how she looked.

 
She was very pretty in the Prince of Egypt, though.

What's more, if Sephora's founders wanted to name their company after sexy Biblical ladies, there are women of the Bible who are explicitly described as beautiful. Esther, for example, is chosen by King Xerxes specifically for her gorgeous appearance. Bathsheba's rooftime bath was so alluring that she easily seduced David.

If Sephora's founders actually used the Greek word for beauty + sexy Bible ladies as their formula, Sephora's name would be something like "Kallster" or "Horsheba".

Yvonne De Carlo in The Ten Commandments.
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Yvonne_De_Carlo_in_The_Ten_Commandments_film_trailer.jpg

Still, I do have one plausible-ish explanation for the name "Sephora": the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, re-named Zipporah "Sephora". Although this is a completely unsubstantiated theory, the actress who played Sephora, Yvonne De Carlo, did wear some pretty nice makeup for the role.

10 comments:

  1. So interesting! Horsheba doesn't really have the same ring to it, does it?

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  2. Thanks for breaking that down! Gotta say, I wouldn't set foot in a store called Horsheba; It sounds like a pet store.

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  3. Yeap, Zippora is Sephora, which is a common hebrew name.I know a girl named Sefora (she's Galega, originated from the Northern part of Spain,in the boarders with Portugal named Galecia).As for the Horsheba, the H in "hōraios" is sillent (think of oreo cookie but accent the -e when pronouncing), so it would be Orsheba (sounding mostly Korean). Ωραίος/hōraios/oreos, is still used in contemporary greek.It is the basic, default word to say goodlooking.

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    1. This is in modern Greek. In Ancient Greek, it was not silent and "αι" was pronounced like "aye" not like "eh" as it is now.

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  4. The word "Sephora" also appears in Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim" (1900) as the name of a ship. There is an offhand reference to a man who "drowned...trying to save a lady's-maid in the Sephora disaster." This suggests that "Sephora" has been in use as a way of spelling and pronouncing the name "Zippora" for quite some time. (And, possibly, that the founders of Sephora are huge Conrad fans, as indeed any person of taste should be.)

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  5. This was an interesting read! Thank you!! By the way my name is Zipporah! Ive been trying to find out more about my name so thank you!

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  7. Super interesting! I'm also read Ancient Greek and had never heard the word and figured it was baloney. The Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Zipporah is Sepphōrā (Σεπφώρᾱ) though. They probably just thought the name was pretty and picked it, and then retroactively tried to assign meaning to it.

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  8. You just saved me from making a total ass of myself on a blog post. I was going to use that fallacious "sephos" explanation, but when I googled "sephora etymology," your page popped up, so I'm linking here. Hm, maybe they were going for the Hebrew word "sepher," which I believe means "book" (so makeup book?? I don't know...), Sepher Yetzirah meaning "book of formation," and I know Yetzirah is the World of Formation in the Tree of Life/Qabalistic teachings from what I've read, buuuuut if they were using a made up Greek word and foisting that off as an explanation, it's hard to envision them using something as esoteric as mystic Judaism, which I've been studying for nearly two decades and am still nowhere near an expert.

    Either way, thank you for the information!

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