Cherubim, Seraphim, and otherim

Something I've been seeing unusually often lately: use of "-im" words as singular.

The "-im" suffix, in words derived from Hebrew, is generally a masculine plural, as far as I can tell (I'm sure Shmuel or others will correct me if that's wrong). So words like "cherubim," "seraphim," "Nephilim," "dybbukim," "Hasidim," "kibbutzim," "klezmorim," and "goyim" are plural.

In English, other plural forms are often acceptable. For example, it's fine in English to say "cherubs," "seraphs," "dybbuks," and even "goys." (We usually talk about the Nephilim in plural; I don't think I've seen "Nephil" singular.)

But in all those cases, it's not correct to use the "-im" forms as singular. * "A Nephilim walks into a bar" is grammatically wrong; likewise * "Wow, that cherubim is totally hot."

I imagine that part of the confusion comes from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door, in which there's a character who's referred to as a cherubim. But even there, L'Engle was aware that that's nonstandard:

Calvin made a sound which, if he had been less astonished, would have been a laugh. "But cherubim is plural."

The fire-spouting beast returned, "I am practically plural. The little boy thought I was a drive of dragons, didn't he? [...]"

A Wind in the Door, p. 56 of (I guess) the 1974 Dell edition

Of course, this is only an issue for -im words that come from Hebrew. For example, "victim," "verbatim," "grim," "disclaim," "denim," and "Sondheim" are not plurals.

4 Responses to “Cherubim, Seraphim, and otherim”

  1. Vardibidian

    My recollection is that in the Scripture, the seraphim (plural of seraph) take a singular verb, which is very confusing. If you believe that the text is perfect, then you have to have some reason for it, which is how this idea of singular seraphim/cherubim comes about, and where Ms. L’Engle gets it from.

    I should actually look up the text. Isaiah? Anyway. You are quite correct that outside that context using the singular with a -im is not only grammatically wrong, but sounds awful.


  2. Shmuel

    You are entirely correct, Jed!

    V: I don’t think “seraphim” ever takes a singular verb in the Hebrew, though I can’t swear to that. I do know that the KJV (mis)translates the term as “seraphims” in chapter 6 of Isaiah, which may account for the confusion.

  3. T.c.ybarra

    I need to go over this once again,that still did not explain the otherim,or is that a remark to as might be some thing else as in other wise? what of the cherubim and the passage in the bible where the lord makes it clear that satan is a cherub too? can we expect for satan to copy as he did in egypt with acts that the egyptians came against the lord and joshua and moses?

  4. Jed

    “otherim” was a joke–the idea being that “-im” is a plural suffix, so “otherim” would be a joke way of saying “others.” Or, more specifically, of saying “other words that end with ‘-im.'”

    I don’t understand the rest of your comment. In case this helps, my entry here has no bearing on any matters of religious truth; it’s merely a discussion of suffixes and grammar.


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