Learning a new ‘slanguage’

A selection of Hebrew slang that is unique to the Holy City, from ‘abu yo-yo’ to ‘ziggy.’

‘Ma’ataim’ is a typical Jerusalem pronunciation of 200 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘Ma’ataim’ is a typical Jerusalem pronunciation of 200
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, is a multicultural, thriving and ancient city and, like residents of other great cities around the world, locals here have their own unique manners of speech. Unlike, for example, English in the UK, modern Hebrew doesn’t have regional accents; however, Hebrew speech in the holy city has its own particular cadence and feel, which reflects the influence not only of the various cultures in the city but even its geography.
Dr. Noam Faust, a teaching fellow in the Linguistics Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and native Jerusalemite, says that the Hebrew slang of the holy city contains several notable elements but stressed that Jerusalem Hebrew is not significantly different from the Hebrew spoken elsewhere in Israel.
“Hebrew accents, you can find things typical to certain places, a certain style of speech like in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, but true [geographical] accents, due to the history of modern Hebrew, don’t really exist,” Faust explained, noting that in Israel “there is more of a division of socioeconomic levels” in regard to one’s style of speech.
In other words, Israel doesn’t have the equivalent of a Texas twang or a Brooklyn street accent, due to the relative newness of modern Hebrew. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa residents pretty much speak the same way.
While there hasn’t been time for regional accents to develop, educational background has a great effect on one’s Hebrew accent and style of speech.
Nonetheless, in Jerusalem there are special and sometimes subtle ways of saying certain things, Faust says, such as ma’ataim instead of the normal mataim for the word meaning “200.” Another example is to pronounce the one-syllable foul, as in an illegal sports move, as fa’wel, with two syllables. (“Foul” is, of course, an English word originally, but it is in common use in Hebrew.) Slang and accents are not the same, of course, and slang, non-standard and informal usages of words is a much more dynamic and quick-to-change phenomenon and can definitely be found on the regional level in Israel.
Jerusalemites actually have a whole set of slang terms relating to sports, especially soccer, such as lehafrik, indicating the first throw of the ball at the beginning of a match, and lekarkes, a term used to describe making a skillful maneuver with the ball that an opponent cannot match.
Jerusalem is situated at a high elevation, and the city itself is quite hilly, a topographical reality that lends itself to the use of the term laredet, meaning literally “to descend” or “to go down.” This is a normal Hebrew term, but due to the hills of Jerusalem, there is laredet ha’ira (“to go down to the city”), used as “to go downtown,” as Jerusalem’s downtown area is at a lower elevation than most of the other neighborhoods. Laredet letel aviv, “to go down to Tel Aviv,” is also a common phrase for traveling to the coastal city from Jerusalem.
The reverse is also true when speaking of Jerusalem: “la’alot leyerushalim,” “to ascend” or “go up to Jerusalem,” is commonly used to describe a journey to the Holy City and is not necessarily slang, being a Hebrew phrase in use since ancient times, but is certainly a term closely associated with Jerusalem. La’alot also has a spiritual aspect, again something closely associated with Jerusalem.
Much of general Hebrew slang in Israel comes from Arabic, such as sababa (“it’s cool”). Jerusalem Hebrew does have some unique Arabic influences, such as aju and the plural ajuim, meaning “apricot pits”; bared, meaning “a lazy dude”; and esh-tanur, “oven bread” in Arabic but referring to the hot oven in Hebrew, and a Jerusalem term for laffa, the common flat bread found at most falafel and shwarma restaurants.
(It is worth nothing that Jerusalem spoken Arabic has its own unique accent and slang, distinct from the Arabic spoken in other parts of the country, a topic beyond the scope of this article.) According to Faust, something “likely unique to Jerusalem” is the influence of Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) on Jerusalem Hebrew slang, a phenomenon that he has not been seen in the Hebrew spoken outside of the Holy City.
Examples of this are pinyones, a Jerusalem term for “pine nuts,” as opposed the Arabic-origin tznobarim in use in the rest of Israel; tchapatchula, a term of Greek origin but adapted into Ladino, meaning “a simple, plain young girl”; bambalik, a slang word for “licorice”; and parsa, a word for the vegetable “leek.”
Some classic Jerusalem slang terms are of an indeterminate origin, such as coolulush, a hard-to-define word sometimes described as “the feel of a good party,” possibly derived from the ululating sound; and ziggy, meaning “a geek” or “a nerd,” which probably came from a first name.
Another expression for a nice but nerdy guy also has a particular Jerusalemite influence: Yeled tov yerushalayim literally means “a Jerusalem good boy” but can be used for “squares” from anywhere in the country. Wordsmith Ruvik Rosenthal believes the phrase comes from the words used to decorate kippot in the 1950s.
Other examples of Jerusalemite slang take common words and expand their usage, such as petel, which means “raspberry,” but is used for any fruit-flavored beverage.
Another whole body of slang revolves around children’s games, terms which, given the dynamic nature of slang itself, show remarkable resilience and have been in use for generations. Some examples are even juk, which literally means “stone cockroach” but is used for the game “rock scissors paper”; and hayei sara, which is a Torah portion in the book of Genesis, but in Jerusalem is also a playground ball game. It’s not exactly a game, but abu yo-yo in Jerusalem is a common expression for “a piggy-back ride” but is a slang term for “a sack of flour” in the rest of Israel.
Languages are living, breathing things, and over time they change. The website Safa-Ivrit (www.safa-ivrit.org) maintains a list of slang terms, including a short list of Hebrew Jerusalemite slang current during the British Mandate, before Israeli independence. These include franzi, from the Arabic word for “French,” meaning “elegant garments”; and dag maluah, which literally means “salty fish” in Hebrew and was evidently used by the working class to make fun of the ties and garments the upper class wore.
Interestingly, in modern slang dag maluah is a children’s playground game, but during the Mandate period Jerusalem children played games such as aretz, the Hebrew term for “land” or “country” but used for a hopscotch-like game; alambuli or alem salem patchka, a bat and ball game played between two teams; and hold or hold-up, a tag like-game where the child who was “it” would search for the other children while extending his/her hand in the form of a pistol.
How slang comes in and out of use is a dynamic process, and it is likely that inside the nearest high school, new terms are being created and tested out, which might find their way into general usage in the coming years. Until then, we’ll leave it to those teenage tchapatchulas and ziggies to figure out, while we play even juk to determine who’ll buy the next round of petel and bambalik.