Hebrew Hear-Say: Trite, tried and trusted

By their very nature, cliches lack novelty appeal. They are essentially metaphors that have been done to death.

October 25, 2007 12:08
3 minute read.


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I try to avoid cliches (like the plague). As a literary device, they add about as much life to a piece of writing as a door nail (which we all know is dead), and "as quick as a flash" they become worn out and wearing. By their very nature, cliches lack novelty appeal. They are essentially metaphors that have been done to death. No wonder they can haunt you. But they have their uses. Particularly for those just learning a language. There is something very comforting in encountering tried and trusted truisms that can be parroted back with a certain amount of confidence. They help give the impression that you're in the know - and hamevin yavin (literally: "He who understands, will understand" but used to imply that you have to read between the lines). This is especially true for that early period after arrival in the country, when the phrase new immigrants hear the most is: "Kol hahathalot kashot" ("All beginnings are hard"). True enough: but still annoying and cloying, particularly as it is more than just a figure of speech. It is a cliched truism. The equivalent for kids is the standard stoic Hebrew platitude used for anything from minor cuts to major heartbreaks: "Ad hahatuna ze ya'avor" ("It will be over by the time you get married") occasionally switched with "ad habar mitzva ze ya'avor," which is the same thing simply with a more limited time frame. British writer and wit Stephen Fry once pointed out: "It is a cliche that most cliches are true, but then like most cliches, that cliche is untrue." No language is immune to them (true or false), but as they say around these parts: "Lo na'im, lo nora" ("It's not nice, but it's not bad" - "It could be worse"). Some Hebrew cliches aren't even in Hebrew at all: It is perfectly acceptable for Israelis to use the Arabic phrase "yom asal, yom basal" (a day of honey, a day of onions), which is just another way of saying that there are good days and bad days. After the latter, you can seek solace in the standard sentiment: "Mahar yihye yom hadash" - or as Scarlett O'Hara famously reminded us at the end of Gone with the Wind: "Tomorrow is another day." Cliches like these cross cultural boundaries with ease. "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush" - tov tzippor (ahat) bayad mishtayim al ha'etz - seems to have migrated over long distances. Some take their time but, as I try not to say, "Better late than never": "Tov me'uhar mile'olam lo." If you've had enough of being patronized, put down or put upon, don't be afraid to let people know: Just keep in mind the almost untranslatable saying: "Lo na'im met mizman" ("Not nice died a long time ago" - in other words, it might not be pleasant but don't let it kill you.) Politicians have their own standard cliches. It seems nearly every interview starts with the speaker complaining, "Lo ya'ale al hada'at..." ("It's inconceivable...," which makes me want to respond a la Princess Bride's Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.") As elsewhere, Israeli politicians, too, talk of the "window of opportunity" (halon hizdamnuyot) and express "cautious optimism" (optimiut zehira). The country's leaders certainly have their work cut out for them, but as you will undoubtedly hear if you're in Israel any length of time: "Bishvil kavod tzarich la'avod" ("You have to work to earn respect"). Check out Yehoram Gaon in the movie Kazablan for the context. There are cliches and counter-cliches. Kazablan's statement can be combatted with: "Ba'al ha'me'a hu ba'al hade'a" ("The one with the money calls the tune" - literally, "He who owns the hundred owns the opinion"). The common way to end an argument is to simply state: "Al ta'am ve'al re'ah ein ma lehitvake'ah" ("You can't argue about taste and smell"). Of course, in Israel you can argue about almost anything: "Ma shebatuah batuah" ("That's for sure" - literally, "What's certain is certain"). "Ein davar ke'ze ein davar ke'ze" ("There's no such thing as no such thing"). For argument's sake, I have to note the cliche that some people just won't take no for an answer. There are, of course, many more commonplace expressions that could be recorded here. Don't nag. You give someone a finger and they'll want the a hand. (In Hebrew: Notnim etzba ve'rotzim et kol hayad.) Let me just end this week's column with the frequently heard but fitting Hebrew saying: "Haya tov, ve'tov shehaya." "It was good, but it's good it's over." liat@jpost.com

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