Hebrew Hear-Say: Not expression-less

The ultimate Israeli fear of being a freier (sucker) seems to stem from the German.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
(photo credit: )
Some books have titles so catchy they can't fail to grab you. This is how I ended up perusing "Shulman yeshalem betarapapu" ("Shulman will pay in the year Tarapapu"), one of the many anthologies of Hebrew sayings printed around the time of the country's 60th anniversary celebrations (Oranit publishers, NIS 64). Subtitled, "The stories behind the expressions," the book was compiled as a labor of love by Yair Mahat, a Defense Ministry employee for whom playing word detective is a hobby. (The lovely line drawings scattered throughout are by Yuval Merom.) The title refers to the slang phrase meaning "some distant year" and is, I learned, derived from the Ladino for "the times of my grandfather's grandfather," which somewhat resembles the Hebrew year "hatarpu." Some of the phrases which need explaining to the Hebrew-speaking public are far better known to native English speakers (the earl of Sandwich's contribution to the culinary world, for example, which in correct Hebrew should be called "karich"). But I found some explanations of even English derivations educational: For instance Mahat suggests that the word "tip," (the correct Hebrew is "tesher" but "tip" is still frequently used) originated with the tins which were placed in the earliest British coffee houses and marked: To Insure Promptness. "OK" might stem from the British reports during World War I giving the number of soldiers killed (such as 4K): When all the force returned safely, there were 0 killed, which easily transformed into OK. The computer "bug" (the same in Hebrew), reportedly, comes from Harvard's early (Mark 1) computer which produced erroneous results. After it was taken apart, the source of the problem was traced back to a dead insect which had apparently broken the circuits. The bookworm (tola'at sfarim) can also be traced back to a bug: Rashi refers to it when dealing with the question of holy books and tefillin which have gone moldy. The origins of many of the Hebrew phrases will be no mystery to anyone reasonably versed in Jewish history and language: Ot Kayin (the mark of Cain) being an obvious example. However, the book would make a nice bar/bat mitzva present for the "mobile" generation, too young to remember the days of the public telephone token and hence the origins of the phrase, "nafal ha'asimon," Hebrew's equivalent of "the penny dropped." The asimon fell for me when I read why Israelis use the birthday greeting of "ad 120" (ad mea ve'esrim), which (and I can now add "of course") refers to the age that Moses reached in good health. And "aharon, aharon, haviv" (the equivalent of "last but not least") comes from Rashi's interpretation of the order in which Jacob and his family set out for the conciliatory meeting with Esau - Joseph, the patriarch's favorite, being the last. The lexicon could have benefited from "nikud" - writing the vowels in the entries. And although in many cases several suggestions are offered, in others the entries come across as definitive when there are definitely other options. Mahat, for instance, writes that "pous," what Israeli kids say when they want to temporarily halt a game, stems from the English "pause," while wordsmith supreme Ruvik Rosenthal in his Dictionary of Israeli Slang, suggests it is derived from the French "pouce," thumb, from the practice of holding up a thumb as a sign to stop. Rosenthal's book title might not be as catchy, but I would definitely defer to him as the authority. Still, Shulman offered me a great deal of pleasure and insight. Mahat suggests that the phrase "pa'am shlishit glida" (literally: "the third time, an ice cream") - used when you've seen somebody twice by chance in quick succession (and referred to in a column last summer) - is possibly a combination of the British: "If I see you next time, I'll scream" and the American: "Third time's a charm." Napoleon lives on in the phrase "General Horef" (General Winter) - meaning a particularly harsh winter - since it was the Russian weather, rather than Russian army, that beat Bonaparte. And the ultimate Israeli fear of being a freier (sucker) seems to stem from the German. A Freiherr was a relatively low level of aristocrat bound to several noblemen of higher standing, it was adopted perhaps because of the famed Yekke trait of automatic obedience. The Shulman of the title was no freier, but for the full story you'll have to read the book. liat@jpost.com