Hebrew Hear-Say: Battling on

We are perhaps more cynical as conventional war turns into global jihad but there's no need to give up the fight.

By
March 13, 2008 14:15
4 minute read.

Some things are so obvious, Israelis just don't bother spelling them out. Hamatzav, for example, literally means "The Situation" but everyone understands it to mean the security situation. Hamatzav, at the moment, is "al hapanim": literally on its face, or rock bottom. But let's face it, it's almost Purim when nothing is as it seems. This is one of those quintessentially Jewish holidays commemorating survival against all odds (neged kol hasikuim). We got through the first Pessah and Purim thousands of years ago and we're still here: with our own land - so special everybody seems to want a part of it - and our own government (admittedly not the envy of all). And we have an army of which we can still be proud even though the catchphrase "Kol hakavod letzahal" - "Bravo to the IDF" - sometimes sounds stilted and it's been more than a decade since sing-along queen Saraleh Sharon coined a phrase as she clutched a bouquet and promised: Haprahim letzahal - "The flowers to the IDF." We are perhaps more cynical as conventional war turns into global jihad but there's no need to give up the fight. Military terms and language are also dynamic, reflecting a changing world. Wordsmith par excellence Ruvik Rosenthal in his Lexicon shel hahaim ("The Lexicon of Life: Israeli Sociolects and Jargon") notes that despite the huge impact of Arabic and English in all other fields of life, the IDF is a bastion of Hebrew. The prestate Palmahnik might have been influenced by Arabic but since independence, Israeli military jargon has been basically a blue-and-white affair. Hence it is full of acronyms and telegraphic terms as you would expect of a language developed for use over field communication systems. I am one of those who suspects that the Israeli predilection for cellphones grew out of the natural tendency to talk on IDF wirelesses: "Tafsik lekashkesh bareshet" - "Stop chatting on the network" - was a common cry even in my days in the army, so long ago the First Lebanon War did not yet have a name let alone a number. While English has taken giant steps in conquering everyday Hebrew language and slang, in the military, it was given its marching orders along with the British in 1948. Almost all that remains is hayal shel shokolad - a chocolate soldier, i.e. a soldier who doesn't know how to fight - translated from the English, and a "jobnik": a non-combatant soldier. The only other exception that springs to mind - or at least is publishable in a family paper - is the "after" - pronounced "af-terre," from the English "after duty," meaning an evening off. I once tried in vain to educate a base to call it a "before" since it was customary in our unit to give soldiers the evening off ahead of a difficult mission or staying Shabbat, not afterward. Every force has its own motto and pet phrases, some of which have also changed over the years. Nahal, the accepted acronym of Noar halutzi lohem (Fighting Pioneering Youth), for example, was also at one point called by insiders Nahutz hamor la'avoda ("An ass/donkey is needed to work) reflecting the long period spent as unpaid field hands on kibbutzim in the days before Israel grew housing units on most of its agricultural land and imported Thai workers to work on what remained. It is a colorful army. There are the Greens ("Yerukim"): taken to mean either soldiers from field corps or Border Police, who wear green uniforms); the "levanim," whites (for the dress uniform of the navy), the k'cholim "blues" (ditto the air force uniform); and the adumim (paratroopers) with their red berets. There are Golani Brigade soldiers (golanchikim) in brown berets and Givati soldiers who adopted the motto "Yehidat Sgula" - "a unit of virtue" - a play on words for the color purple (sagol) of their headwear. There are many units whose work is openly praised. And then there are the ones that everyone knows about but no one is meant to talk about, hence the shushed nickname "shoo-shoo-ist" which usually refers to Mossadniks and security service agents. Don't refer to the latter as belonging to the Shin Bet - you might just as well wear a badge saying: "I'm only visiting." One of the inexplicable enigmas of Hebrew-English relations is why Diaspora Jews and the Western world in general calls the Israel Security Agency by its first Hebrew initials when all Israel and the Arab world calls it the Shabak, the acronym for Sherut Bitahon Klali (General Security Service). They are the ones often involved in the intelligence work (modi'in) necessary to thwart a terror attack - pigua - or what is known by that particularly tautological phrase "paha," peilut hablanit oyenet (hostile terrorist activity) as if there was any other kind of terrorist activity. May all our enemies' evil designs be denoted by the letters alef nun, alef nun (ain nifgaim, ain nezek - no casualties, no damage). And may we celebrate a happy and peaceful Purim! liat@jpost.com


Related Content