Hebrew Hear-Say: Ps and Qs R'nt Us

This column is for polite company. It's inspired by the latest book by British writer and journalist Lynne Truss.

May 4, 2006 09:59
2 minute read.
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This column is for polite company. It's inspired by the latest book by British writer and journalist Lynne Truss. She's the author of the much quoted Eats, Shoots & Leaves - the diatribe against the general abuse of English grammar. In Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life [or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door] Truss, as you might have guessed, turns her considerable talents of ranting to the subject of the "rudeness of the modern world, and the sense of outrage that infects us every day as we discover that other people are - generally speaking - crass, selfish and inconsiderate." And someone who can get worked up enough about missing commas and absent apostrophes to write an entire book on the subject can get positively apoplectic over such questions as: "What ever happened to 'please' and 'thank you?' Why does the consumer have to do all the work? Why do people behave in public as if they are in private? What ever happened to the idea of public-spiritedness?" Of course, here the poor Brits are at a disadvantage compared to those of us who live in a country in which courtesy was never exactly common. Let's face it, the residents of the Holy Land are not exactly living in a state of grace. We live in what has been called the "Dugri Society," dugri being the Hebraicized version of the Arabic word for "straight." We pride ourselves on not beating around the bush. It's not so much that we're lacking in good manners, we just have a unique way of showing them. After all, the words for "please" and "thank you" ("bevakasha" and "toda") appear in every phrase book, and there's even a posher way of thanking someone - although I admit, the last time I heard anyone say "Hen, hen" was as I wandered the corridors of the Hebrew Language Academy, and when I used it on a taxi driver he looked at me as if I was taking him for a ride. And here lies the rub: The rules of politeness are intricately caught up in the web of irony. Try translating into Hebrew, for example, that oh-so-British command: "Would you please stop making such a racket!" and it would probably come out as "Oolie tafsiku et hara'ash hazeh kvar" ("Maybe you could stop making that noise already!") - the "maybe" being used for satiric-rhetoric effect. A Hebrew University lecturer once pointed out that were an Israeli paper to suddenly start using the word "Mr." before the prime minister's name, the reader would know that it was meant ironically, whereas were The New York Times to drop the title you would read it as an act of derision. Truss is far from "dugri" as she describes a life that seems to be a constant nightmare from which there is no awakening, rude or otherwise. But reading her book made me laugh out loud on a bus - and then wonder if that's polite.

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