The Glamour of the Grammar: Can I borrow a word?

Many words in Hebrew come from English, and vice versa.

January 10, 2008 12:58
3 minute read.

A friend recently asked me in Hebrew, "How do you say karboorator in English?" "Carburetor?" I suggested. Many words in Hebrew come from English, and vice versa. (Though as it happens, there is a "real" word in Hebrew for "carburetor": me'ayed, "vaporizer," ultimately from the word ed, "mist.") Typically called "loan words" - even though it's not a loan and the words are never returned - some cross seamlessly from language to language; others morph along the way. English speakers instantly recognize common Hebrew nouns such as dolfeen, horoskop, veetameen and many others. Frequently a foreign word will be Hebraicized slightly, as with feelosof for philosopher or eteemologya for etymology. (The word "etymology" itself traces its roots back to the Greek etymon ["true"] and logos ["discusser"]. Etymology literally means the "true meaning of the word," though frequently the etymological meaning is not the true meaning at all. But that's for another day.) Other times, the Hebrew form of the word differs slightly from its English counterpart, such as peengween for penguin. More interesting are the words whose meaning changes when they move into Hebrew. From the English "cornflakes," we get the popular Hebrew word kornflayks, which means "breakfast cereal." In Hebrew, Rice Krispies is one kind of kornflayks. There is a Hebrew term for cereal, midganim, from dagan or grain. This transition from specific to more general is common. Another example is the Hebrew bak aks, from the English back axle. It means axle and your car has two of them, the bak aks ahori (rear back axle) and the bak aks kidmi (front back axle). The opposite of generalization is specialization. The word "concert" yields the Hebrew kontzert, which means "classical music concert." (When David Broza plays, it's called a hofa'a, or appearance, in Hebrew.) A technical term will help us understand the next way words change meaning as they migrate from language to language: metonymy. That is, using a word to refer to something related to the word. A common example comes from the captain of a ship who shouts, "All hands on deck," and who, presumably, wants not just the hands but the people to whom they are attached. (Metonymy is a good word to use if you want to end a conversation. Tell your interlocutor, "That's an interesting metonymic use of the word," and he or she will probably leave you alone.) The English word "tape" becomes tayp in Hebrew, but it means "tape deck." That's metonymy. Deesk means "CD player." (Some Hebrew speakers prefer the longer term kompakt deesk.) There are two kinds of camera in Hebrew: veedee'o (which takes movies) and steel (which takes pictures). The latter gets its name from the still (non-moving) nature of the photograph. Some speakers even redundantly refer to photographs as "steel pictures." Another common pattern is intensification. Two Hebrew words mean "specific": mesuyam, which just means specific, and spetzifi, which means something like "even more specific than that." Similarly, the original version of something is the makor (original), but if the original is hard to come by, a dealer might boast that he sells not a knock-off but the oreeginal. It's as if these loan words come with built in italics for emphasis. In a class by itself we find the word ekspres, obviously from the English "express." The thing is, it's the local bus service. How did that happen? Originally, most buses simply ran between two locations, stopping at intermediate points. But, frequently at the end of the day, a bus called the me'asef (collector) was added to stop at all of the regular stops, and, in addition, to meander in and out of every village along the way. The me'asef from, say, Haifa to Kiryat Shmona was practically a tour of the North. The bus route that didn't go through the villages, but did stop at every stop was, for contrast, called the ekspres. But then two more terms were introduced, the mahir (speedy) and the yashir (direct). Those are what we would call "express service" in English, while the ekspres, as I say, is what we call the "local." "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," wrote Shakespeare. Maybe that's why. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.

Related Content

Supreme Court President Asher Grunis
August 28, 2014
Grapevine: September significance