Mistakes, straight ahead

More of those Hebrew-language gaffes that tourists and immigrants just don’t seem to be able to avoid.

Minibus monit sherut 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Minibus monit sherut 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Twice a year I write a compilation of mistakes readers, friends and acquaintances have made in Hebrew; the gaffes, however, are made year-round. As usual, some in this crop were made a long time ago – forgiven but not forgotten – and others are new, like the visitors and immigrants who made them.
There is a saying in Hebrew, “Freierim lo metim, hem rak mithalfim,” suckers don’t die, they just get replaced.
As even very fresh newcomers know, being a freier is about the worst possible cardinal sin for Israelis, but in the latest bunch of bloopers, many were deadly embarrassing.
My colleague Ruth Beloff recalls: “On one occasion, when I had the privilege of meeting the wife of a well-known elderly public figure, I said to my friend, ‘You know who I met today?’ and said her name.
“His response was: ‘That’s too bad.’ “Turns out, what he heard was ‘You know who died [met] today?’” An English-speaking immigrant rabbi performed a marriage ceremony, which turned into a dead giveaway that he still had something to learn when it comes to the Holy Tongue.
As the happy couple stood under the huppa, the rabbi told the guests “that we would make the blessings using a special gift presented by the bride’s parents a beautiful gvia (dead body, instead of gavia, a kiddush cup).”
Our cup indeed runneth over with mistakes.
A colleague once worked as a waitress with a Russian speaker, who volunteered to “collect the corpses” (instead of cups).
Incidentally, the expression “die laughing” is “met mitzhok” – an understandable translation – but the Naked Gun movie series is called in Hebrew “Ha’ekdah met mitzhok” (the gun died laughing), and one viewer gave friends a good laugh by translating the title literally into Hebrew, bearing in mind that the word for “weapon” can (not coincidentally) also be used for a certain part of the male anatomy. The part that men don’t like having laughed at.
And while we’re on the delicate subject, in the perennial errors department, every time I seek language mistakes I don’t have to look very hard to find people with egg on their face over the colloquial term that is the Hebrew equivalent of “balls.”
A friend remembers once asking a male vendor “Yesh lecha beitzim?” although she hadn’t realized it could be interpreted as “Do you have balls?” until he laughed (“And of course I got the point. Did I say that?” she asks.) Confusing the words “michnasayim” (trousers) and “mishkafayim” (eyeglasses) is also so common it is almost a rite of passage for newcomers. Worst affected are doctors and dentists who politely ask patients to take off their pants. The only advantage for the dentists is that it tends to leave the person in the chair with mouth wide open.
Another blooper that regularly crops up is the difference between a “sherut” (shared taxi) and “sherutim,” which is not the plural, whatever you might think. If you ask directions to the sherutim at the central bus station, you will find yourself in the washrooms/bathrooms/ toilets or whatever you call it where you come from. You will not get very far if you were looking for the local taxi rank.
Of course, mistakes work in both directions. Another colleague recalls: “At the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, a group of American tourists boarded a sherut at night, and asked the driver to wait for more of their friends to arrive and board the vehicle. The driver, with a big smile, told the tourists, ‘Tell your friends to be hairy,’ meaning to tell them to hurry.”
Some mistakes are predictable; others are so special you wonder how the person could get it so wrong.
Beloff shares: “Many years ago, I had a friend from Ottawa who spent a summer here on a kibbutz. For some reason, he would always confuse ‘lehitraot’ (see you) with ‘tahana merkazit’ (central bus station). So every time he got on a city bus, he’d say to the driver, ‘Lehitraot,’ and when he was bidding farewell to friends, he’d wave enthusiastically and say, ‘Tahana merkazit!’ “To this day, some of my friends and I will say goodbye to each other with ‘Tahana merkazit’ and laugh our heads off.”
Many years ago, my former geography teacher, visiting from England with her husband, turned up late at my army base in Tiberias because as they got closer to the city, they had seen many signs saying “To Egged” and, not realizing that these were directions to the Egged bus station, were convinced they had chanced across the signs that would take them to some fascinating but little-known archeological site.
Street directions in general can be challenging in a different language. A French-speaker mastered left and right in Hebrew (smol and yamin, respectively) but instead of telling someone to go straight to get to her apartment, she translated the French “tout droit” – all right – and had a visitor circling the area.
Incidentally, my (veteran immigrant) friends laugh that if you ask a Sabra for directions, they will automatically tell you “Yashar, yashar, yashar” (straight, straight, straight) – particularly if they don’t have a clue.
A Russian speaker in Tel Aviv referred to Dusseldorf Street instead of Dizengoff, and Gorbachev Street instead of Bograshov (a problem even L.L. Zamenhof, after whom Zamenhof Street is named, could not solve with Esperanto, the universal language he created).
Somebody I know, who shall remain nameless, made an ass of himself while taking phone messages in his boss’s absence.
“One message was to tell him that ‘The material [homer] was on its way.’ Causing his boss to ask: ‘Who’s sending me a donkey [ h a m - or]?’” A friend recalls office instructions that lost something in translation when she mistook the verb to analyze the data (le’abed spelled with an ayin with “to lose” it (le’abed with an alef.) Acronyms also continue to confuse those who didn’t grow up with them. Beloff doesn’t mind admitting, “When I moved to Israel in 1992, I already spoke Hebrew pretty well, so I could watch the local news on TV. However, it took me a long time to realize that the Ashaf they were always talking about – who did this and said that – was not a person (like Assad or Arafat) but a Hebrew acronym for the PLO.”
An acquaintance confesses she spent a long time asking after a certain Tomer who seemed to have signed a letter she’d received, before discovering it was actually an acronym thanking her in advance (toda merosh). To which I can only write “Amal” – ain ma lehosif – or nothing to add – until the next round-up of bloopers.
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