Diasporas and the seeds of their success

With governments around the world paying more attention to their native sons and daughters abroad, a look at the roots of ‘diaspora.’

Carolyn Kaster/AP
The Greek verb from which the word 'diaspora' came refers to a scattering or sowing of seeds.

I got a hot tip for a cool treat the other day. A friend raved about a particular frozen custard establishment with a location in my old neighborhood. It’s really good, she told me, and the proprietors are from her old neighborhood – Rochester, N.Y.

“Oh, yes, the Rochester diaspora,” I observed. The line drew a bigger chuckle than I might have expected.

But why not a Rochester diaspora? Every other place has one – or so a recent article in The Economist suggests. Countries around the world are “reaching out” to native sons and daughters abroad.

An Irish nonprofit, for instance, tracks down the descendants of those who left for America and elsewhere, in order to invite them to visit. The goal is a database of 30 million to 40 million people to cultivate as potential tourists or maybe even investors.

Another example mentioned was the Indian diaspora, which mobilized to help elect Narendra Modi as prime minister. Nearly 60 percent of United Nations member states have a formal diaspora strategy. Ireland even has a minister of state for the Diaspora.

But the original diaspora is the Jewish one.

Diaspora came into English by the 1640s or earlier, via post-classical Latin, from Greek. In that tongue it meant an act of dispersion, or a group of people who have been dispersed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

I mispronounced the word in my head the first time I encountered it in print; I gave it the same rhythm as diorama. Now I know better. But having checked the etymology, I feel vindicated for stressing the “spor”: The Greek verb from which the noun came refers to a scattering or sowing of seeds. Spores are to nonflowering plants what seeds are to plants that flower. 

Oxford defines diaspora as “The body of Jews living outside the land of Israel,” and continues with reference to “the countries and places inhabited by these, regarded collectively.” A broader sense, “dispersions of nationalities, ethnic groups, etc.,” goes back to the early 20th century.

Oxford notes that diaspora appears a dozen times in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Deuteronomy 28:25: “you shall be in dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary adds this: “A Hebrew word for it is galuth, ‘exile.’ ” That’s not the Hebrew word Englished as diaspora in the Oxford dictionary quote above, by the way. But it’s interesting to think there are two words, one from Greek and the other from Latin, with different underlying metaphors, for the same event.

Exile is banishment, forced removal. It shares a syllable “ex,” or “out of,” with another Latin-derived word with great moment for the Jewish people: exodus, literally “a going out,” more concretely the departure of the Israelites from Egypt.

I’d rather be scattered than banished. 

Seed scattered can, after all, germinate and put down roots – so that frozen custard can blossom in Boston this summer, courtesy of the Rochester diaspora.

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