Hebrew Hear-Say: In our own words

June 8, 2006 13:53
2 minute read.


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This column was meant to be about untranslatable Hebrew words, but when I sat at the computer, davka they all escaped me. Davka is the one that doesn't get away. Once you learn it (mainly through experience), you'll wonder how you ever managed without it. Every language has them: those words with an indescribable nuance. The French, alors, have chic ways of saying je ne sais quoi. German has the handy term preiswert, literally price-worthy, which roughly means reasonable. Think how different history could have been if the world had adopted the preiswert concept instead of the German angst and weltanschauung. Whereas most of the Western world counts in tens, hundreds, thousands and millions, the billion-or-so Chinese have, for obvious reasons, come up with a word for the unit 10,000 (wan). Some words are not so much untranslatable as just unwilling to crossing cultural borders. Like Eskimos have their various terms for ice and snow, the English-speakers can describe rain as spitting, drizzling and pouring. (The Brits also have another word beginning with "p" not suitable for a family newspaper - in Cockney rhyming slang it rhymes with Brahms & Liszt.) In Hebrew, we don't so much describe the strength of the rainfall as note the season. Israeli schoolkids naturally describe the yoreh (first rains) and malkosh (last rains), and the most modern weather forecasters use these biblical words. Even in the age of global warming and the global village these terms are still in tune with the rhythms of The Land in a way that were A.B. Yehoshua to describe them would probably upset Diaspora Jewry in its entirety. One linguistic quirk is the fact that despite the paucity of piles of colored leaves to shuffle through, Hebrew has a precise word for fallen autumn leaves, shalechet (from lehashlich "to cast off"), whereas a specific term for the fall phenomenon might be more useful abroad. Foreign influences on Hebrew often arrive via TV. Years after a certain bald-headed cop retired and even expired, Israelis still refer to the blue flashing light on a police car as a kojak. And older viewers have unfond memories of the era of the mehikon (eraser device), the gadget used by the Israel Broadcasting Authority at the end of the 1970s to wipe the color off any sets capable of receiving technicolor broadcasts when the country still saw things in black and white. (Writer Nathan Zach even produced a book titled Anti-Mehikon.) This was a period when Israelis laughed along with the incomparable comedy team Hagashash Hahiver. You can live in Israel for years, but you won't be fully absorbed until you can quote them. One of their popular sketches involved the word for the chupchik shel hakumkum (kettle). The term for a spout, should you ever need it, is zarbuvit; chupchik remains fairly elusive and can be used for any small thingammybob from an apostrophe to a protruding screw. It's like reshet, which can mean anything from a net, to netting, to communications network. Sometimes modern Hebrew seems to be a bit of a balagan - a word usually translated as mess or chaos but used to describe the quintessential Israeli state. (Surprisingly, the root is apparently Farsi.) It's another term that you can't escape if you live here (or even visit.) The meaning of some words depends on the delivery. The same term can mean "Don't start" and "Woe is me" and if you don't believe me, oy va voy! liat@jpost.com

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