dray-dêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A dreidel is a four-sided top with the Hebrew letters, nun, gimel, hey, and shin, printed one on each side. The letters stand for Nes gadol hayah sham "A great miracle happened there." (In Israel, of course, the letters are nun, gimmel, hey, and pey, for Nes gadol hayah poh "A great miracle happened here.")
Notes: The dreidel is a traditional game played by children as the candles of Hanukkah burn in the Menorah, the nine-candle candelabra of Hanukkah. Each player puts a token in the pot: a piece of candy, a raisin, nut, or chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Then the first player spins the dreidel. When the dreidel stops, the letter that is facing up determines the play: nun indicates neither win nor loss, gimmel allows the spinner to take all the tokens in the pot, hey allows the spinner to take half of the pot, but shin forces the spinner to put one token back into the pot.
In Play: The game of dreidel was played throughout Europe in the Middle Ages under various names. The Hebrew letters are probably borrowed back from the Yiddish or directly from German: N(un) for nichts "nothing", G(immel) for ganz "all", h(ei) for halb "half" and sh(in) for stellen "put in". Legend has it that Jewish children living under the persecution of the Persians and Greeks spun the dreidel as they studied the Torah and Talmud so that their persecutors would think them playing rather than studying forbidden holy writ.
Word History: Dreidel is a Yiddish word spun from the German verb drehen "to spin, turn". This word is related to English throw, which still means "to spin" in the sense of "throwing pots". The Latin descendant of the same original root is torquere "to spin", the root of our words torque, torture, and torment. The same ancient root came to English via a different route as queer in its original sense—another way of thinking of "twisted".
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