Hebrew Hear-Say: The name game

Name dropping. We all do it. Not the sprinkling of mentions of the rich and famous in our daily conversation but the abbreviating of a given name.

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October 25, 2006 10:35
4 minute read.

Name dropping. We all do it. Not the sprinkling of mentions of the rich and famous in our daily conversation but the abbreviating of a given name. Different languages and cultures have different ways of going about it, however. In his book Company C (a worth-reading review of years of IDF reserve duty) American-born author Haim Watzman notes the Israeli military peculiarity that officers are generally known by their first names while the regular soldiers call each other only by their surnames. Maybe it is a natural continuation of an educational system in which teachers are called by first names and the "Miss" is missing. Even chiefs of general staff have been known by nicknames: Raful (Rafael Eitan), the tremendously tall Moshe Levy, called by all "Moishe vahetzi" (Moshe-and-a-half) and Bogie (Moshe) Ya'alon, are some examples. You name it, people will call you it. While not everyone likes a nickname (known in Hebrew as "shem hiba," lit. name of affection, or kinui) they happen in the best of families. Many start with the sweet stuttered versions young kids bestow on themselves and others before they can pronounce names properly. There is something wonderfully Israeli about the very public use of nicknames. Leaders elsewhere might have them, but they don't usually publicize the fact. Here, from former prime ministers Ariel "Arik" Sharon and Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu down to former MK Eliezer "Moodi" (a corruption of hamoodi [cutie]) Zandberg, childhood names are public property. Former foreign minister and Likud MK Silvan Shalom is very publicly called "Steve" by his media personality wife, Judy Shalom Nir Mozes (whose long list of family names serve as her own brief biography). Apropos shalom (albeit with a little "s"), many a foreign observer over the years noted the irony of the fact that one of the country's more prominent right-wing politicians was known to all as "Gandhi." Moledet leader Rehavam Ze'evi, killed by terrorists five years ago this week, once told me that the nickname was given to him as a "skeletally thin 18 year old in the Palmah" the day a barber shaved his hair off and he came out of the shower wrapped only in a towel. The former IDF general apparently once surprised an Indian army officer at military college who knew him only as "Colonel Ze'evi." Not only typical Israeli over-familiarity can cause raised eyebrows abroad. Not all names travel well. Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz has had to cope with far worse. (A clue: The first part of his double-barrelled surname might look like it refers to an aromatic tree but it is pronounced in two syllables.) An aide of his once pointed out, not unreasonably, "I don't know why people have that reaction to his name. There are several Dicks in Congress." Some names travel fine in space but not in time. Yoram, once a perfectly respectable boy's name, is now used as an epithet meaning nerd. Others names stick despite the best efforts of those who want to get rid of them. Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, for example, detests the nickname "Yvet" that was bestowed on him in his wild student days and has haunted him ever since. Years ago I discovered that in certain circumstances it is easier to get married in Israel than change your surname by choice as a single woman. When I made aliya I managed successfully to Hebraicize my first name but to change a name to Cohen, Levy or any derivative (Katz, short for Cohen-Zedek, for example) it was necessary to go to a special office, where the clerk's first demand was to see my parents' wedding certificate to ensure that I really was born into the priestly caste. No ketuba on hand, no Hakohen in my identity card. Hence the one-of-a-kind byline. An answer to that age-old question "What's in a name?" could be fashion, apart from any other sociological statement. There are definitely trends in names, according to an article on the Web by Prof. Aharon Demsky from Bar-Ilan University. In the review, Demsky, who coordinates the Project for the Study of Jewish Names at Bar-Ilan, notes that every 10 years Israelis adopt a different fashion according to the spirit and culture of the time. The most popular names for Jewish pupils starting first grade this year in Israel were Daniel for boys and Eden for girls, replacing Ro'i and Noa as the top appellations. (For the Arab Israeli first-graders the most popular names were Muhammad for boys and Hadil for girls.) The trend for monosyllabic names which are Hebrew but don't necessarily sound Jewish, noted by Demsky a few years back, might be changing. But meantime a large number of Israeli kids going through life in the English-speaking global village with names like: Bar (meaning "wilderness/nature"), Mor (myrrh) and the push-you-pull-you Dor (generation). T.S. Eliot wrote, "The naming of cats is a difficult matter/ It isn't just one of your holiday games..." Choosing what a child should be called is obviously even worse. One unfortunate oversight and your you-know-what is mud. liat@jpost.com


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