Israeli Life: Hebrew Fresh Off the Street
Listen to teens shouting greetings in Tel Aviv or taxi drivers in Jerusalem and you’ll hear the ethos and concerns of a country expressed in the modern jargon of its people.
Okay, I admit it. The reason I always stand in Aviva’s checkout line at the neighborhood supermarket is because…well, because she calls me mahmee (little mother).
It started a short while after I made aliya, when we had gotten to know each other a little. “Ma shlomekh [how are you], mahmee?” she would say, and I’d melt. Mizrahi women in Israel tend to call their kids and anyone else for whom they feel warmth, affection or love, mahmee. Aba’leh (little daddy), another endearment, is used for both boys and girls, but is more limited to children. Along with kapara (atonement, as in, I love you so much I’m willing to be your atonement, to die for your sins) and neshama (soul), both of which also express love and affection, aba’leh was used at first exclusively by Israelis of Middle Eastern origin. But like all successful slang it has spread throughout the population.
Eeavesdrop on teenagers waiting in line to see a movie or listen to cab drivers talking on cell phones and you’ll hear a Hebrew never intended by the father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Everyday Hebrew, like most spoken languages, is peppered with words borrowed from other languages—especially Arabic and English—and with Hebrew expressions that reflect Israel’s national character and mood. A word like mahmee probably wouldn’t catch on in England, but it reflects the warmth and familial feeling that pervade Israel.
Dictionary.com defines slang as “a kind of language occurring chiefly in casual and playful speech, made up typically of short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence or other effect.”
Ruvik Rosenthal, who writes a popular column on the Hebrew language for the daily Ma’ariv and is the author of several books on the subject, says using slang is human nature.
“We need that interplay between serious life and discussion,” Rosenthal says. About 10 percent of all spoken Hebrew words are slang. When he speaks to schoolchildren, Rosenthal tells them slang is like the class clown who does things that are forbidden, but we forgive him. People often use slang to play with the forbidden (like racism and sexism): For example, Jews of Middle Eastern origin are called frenkim (the Spanish word for French); freha, from the Arabic for happy and once a popular woman’s name in North Africa, is widely used by teenagers to describe a cheap-looking, usually Mizrahi, girl.
Rosenthal sees slang as a form of play; his new book Comprehensive Slang Dictionary (Keter) contains 10,000 entries, most in Hebrew, with 15 percent from English, 10 percent from Yiddish and 5 percent from Arabic. There are a few from other languages such as Russian, French and Spanish. In contrast, Raphael Sappan’s Dictionary of Israeli Slang (Kiryat Sefer), from 1965, claims that 40 percent of the words are from Arabic and 40 percent from Yiddish.
“We’re a society of immigrants,” Rosenthal says, “and at first, people spoke in their original languages, so very-often-used words jumped into Hebrew.”
At the beginning of renewed Jewish settlement in Israel, there was a war between Yiddish and Arabic. “The Arabs were here,” explains Rosenthal. “The sabres said Yiddish is galut [diaspora], Arabic is manly. The Palmahniks fought the Arabs and spoke their language. They brought it into Hebrew. In the end, both Arabic and Yiddish won.”
Some Arabic words, such as kef (fun), were adopted because there is no exact Hebrew equivalent. Many Israelis greet friends with ahalan (short for the Arabic ahalan u’sahalan) instead of shalom and leave them with the Arabic-English combination yalla, bye.
Perhaps the most famous Israeli slang word is sabra, which means native-born Israeli and is the Arabic word for prickly pear, the fruit native to Israel that has a tough, thorny skin, but is soft and sweet on the inside. The word in Hebrew is actually tzabar and was suggested as a way of describing those born in the Zionist settlements in Palestine by journalist Uri Keisary. Sabra caught on immediately, but using the Arabic pronunciation. Interestingly, the plural, in Hebrew, is sabres; the “s” is taken from Yiddish.
The interplay between Hebrew and Yiddish is special. “Words from Hebrew pronounced in Yiddish become slang, for example, tuchus,” says Rosenthal. In Hebrew it is tahat.
And where does oyftzeluches, which means “just to make you mad” come from? Oyf tzu (in order to) is from Yiddish and l’hakh’is (to make angry) is Hebrew.
“In the last 30 years,” Rosenthal notes, “Arabic and Yiddish have fallen and English has risen—its influence is huge—mostly through technology and television. Words, such as whatever, you know, sorry, hi, please and cool, pepper our language. The very fact that American movies and television shows are subtitled here rather than dubbed [as] they are in Germany means we all speak much better English and our kids speak it even better.”
Rosenthal recently won the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s Pulitzer, and his column gets an average of 100 letters a week. He says that while the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which was established in 1953 to study and prescribe standards for Hebrew, accepts some slang words but not others, it doesn’t have much influence over the public. “It’s a losing battle, and not a worthwhile one,” he says. He feels borrowing from other languages expands Hebrew. “That’s how Hebrew is developing,” he adds.
Ronit Gadish, academic secretary of the academy, feels it is a misperception that the academy tries to fight slang. “People think we discourage slang, but we don’t,” she says. “We do not deal with slang for the good or the bad. We’re interested in the natural development of language. We are not police.”
Slang, she explains, has psychological, social and linguistic aspects. It often serves to gel the identity of people in a closed group; for example, there is slang specific to convicts, schools, the Army, even thieves. Some words enter the lexicon temporarily and others become a part of the language. “Slang,” she says, “is just part of this fascinating phenomenon called language.”
In his dictionary, Sappan writes that a lot of slang originated in closed populations and then spread. Rosenthal explains that homosexuals and even building contractors have their own special slang. For example, okh’ha is used among Israeli gays for a male homosexual who is flamboyant and showy. In Arabic, the word means sister. Thieves talk about a double, meaning breaking into a house, stealing items from it, then stealing the car keys and the car. A triple means all of this plus stealing the keys to the person’s business and then stealing items from the business.
Rosenthal’s tome contains a thesaurus and the biggest categories are words for failure, violence, struggle, sorrow and pain and putdowns. What does this say about Israelis? Obviously much of this can be attributed to the suffering experienced by Jews in the diaspora and to the difficult security situation in Israel. But Rosenthal says it also reflects a population that is emotional, and vulgar.
Like fashions, these words and expressions change with the times and the ones you use can date you. These days, if you’re young and with it and you want to describe a party, a movie or a meal that was really great, you’ll use sof haderekh (the end of the road). “It’s the top, the best, like there’s nowhere else to go from there,” says Yahel Zaouch, a 26-year-old film student. “We use it nonstop.” (She spoke in Hebrew but said “nonstop” in English.)
That means that sof haderekh is even more far out than sababa or ahla, both are borrowed from Arabic and mean sweet, great or awesome. But sababa and ahla, which are used dozens of times a day, especially by the young, serve another purpose as well, a kind of agreement, a confirmation. If you’re on the phone making a date to meet someone, once all the details are settled and just before hanging up, one of you is likely to say sababa or ahla, which is shorthand for “Great. I’m looking forward to it. It should be fun.”
An informal survey of some of the more common phrases reveals that they fall into four categories: words and expressions describing something good or fun; those having to do with hardship, sometimes combined with hope and reassurance. Yihiyeh tov (it will be good, it will turn out okay) and ad hahatuna hakol ya’avor (this too shall pass, or literally, until the wedding, it will all pass) are good examples. There are also words of affection and expressions originating in religion or the relationship with God, such as Hashem yishmor (God will protect us) or b’ezrat Hashem (with God’s help); these are used by many secular people as well.
Every slang word has its own story, Rosenthal says. The widely used laflaf (nerd) was invented on a television program. The Yiddish shmendrik, also used in Hebrew, first appeared in a Yiddish play by Abraham Goldfaden at the beginning of the 20th century. The popular freier (sucker) originates with the German word that means free man or bachelor. Through Yiddish, it traveled to Poland, where it morphed into a bachelor with a problem. In Israel, it became someone you could fool.
“It became important in Hebrew,” Rosenthal explains, “because it expresses an Israeli ethos—don’t let people take advantage of you.” But among the ultra-Orthodox, freier (literally, free) means secular.
Another example is balagan (a mess, chaos), which has retained its popularity for decades. It originated in the Persian word for a hut in the marketplace. A word either catches on because it fills a need or it disappears.
And how do slang words get their start? “Someone invents it, but in 99 percent of the cases we’ll never know who,” Rosenthal says. Often his readers point out a word’s origin. One reader wrote that he was present on the day in the 1960’s when someone said the @ sign on the typewriter keyboard looked like a shtrudel. It took hold and strengthened with the emergence of the Internet—it is the way Israelis say “at” in an e-mail address. If Israelis see a pastry in the squiggly symbol, in other countries it has taken on the name of a pig’s tail or a snail.
It is easier to trace slang etymologically than to find its origins. Rosenthal says there are only 50 slang words that he has not been able to trace, for example matkot, the wooden paddles used in the game played on Israeli beaches.
Some words that were once very popular have disappeared. Hatikha (a sexy woman, literally, a piece) has been replaced, believe it or not, by kooseet, which comes from the Arabic word for vagina (koos). “It’s exactly like hatikha,” says Rosenthal. “It has lost its vulgarity.” Indeed, it is used in Hebrew subtitles to translate the word “hot” when referring to a woman.
When I ran into Aviva outside the supermarket the other day, I told her I was writing an article about Hebrew street language “and you’re in the lead.”
“Really?” she said, a smile lighting up her face. “What a mahmee!”