My Word: A word in time

How the development of Hebrew mirrors Israel's history.

Flashcards with Hebrew words, including the word "Tapuach," meaning "apple". (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Flashcards with Hebrew words, including the word "Tapuach," meaning "apple". (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Nothing sends me down memory lane like an old song or a certain smell, but this week I discovered a close runner-up: Words can also conjure up a different time. In honor of the country’s 70th anniversary, the Hebrew Language Academy produced two special projects, a compilation of Hebrew words representing each year and a special hit parade with a favorite word for each decade.
As the academy noted, “every period can be characterized by photos, tunes, objects or items of clothing, and it can also be characterized by a word.” Literally a word in time.
The public was invited to weigh in on the Word of the Decade project, and the Hebrew Language Academy staff also plowed through archives and consulted with distinguished experts in various spheres to come up with the list that can take you back in time.
Fittingly, the word for the first decade (1948-58) was atzmaut, independence, chosen by 57% of those who had their say (in Hebrew, of course). The runners-up for those early years of statehood were tzena, austerity (20%), and ma’bara (10%), the term for the transit camps set up to house immigrants flooding into the nascent state.
The country and the language have come a long way since then. No wonder atzmaut took pride of place. The creation of the state, the in-gathering of the exiles, and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language were miracles of biblical proportions.
Words are the stepping stones on the path of history, and the second decade (1958-68) shows some progress.
While most people probably associate this period with the no-less miraculous Six Day War, when a vastly outnumbered Israel managed to defeat its many enemies within a week and even reunite Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and elsewhere, from a linguistic point of view the word that obviously stood out was still the non-boastful mitun, recession (39%). It’s not much better than austerity, although the runners-up included markol, supermarket (22%), hallalit, spaceship (16%), and mahazemer, musical, a wonderful combination of the words for play and song (13%).
The decade between 1968 and 1978 is characterized by the word that became an enduring symbol of the time: mahapach, turn-about or upheaval, based on the word for revolution. This is the word memorably used by newscaster Haim Yavin to describe the results of the 1977 election when the Likud first came to power, ousting Labor. It’s a word that went down in history (and was chosen by 56%). Other chosen words symbolizing not only the decade but the up-and-down nature of life in Israel, were lahit, a hit in the musical or popular sense (19%), and mehdal, foul-up or blunder.
It still surprises outsiders that the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Israel ultimately won, gaining even more territory, could be considered such a failure in the Jewish state. But the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and the start of a bloody war in which more than 2,600 IDF soldiers fell not only marked the end of the post-Six Day War euphoria, it was a reminder of the elusive nature of peace and security.
For the period between 1978 and 1988, the top choice was shekel. It didn’t so much coin a phrase as revive an old currency. Until 1980, Israelis used the lira as money.
This was replaced by the (old) shekel in February 1980, bringing back into use the Hebrew word for the biblical currency. In a time noteworthy for galloping inflation, the old shekel was swiftly replaced by the New Israeli Shekel, which is still in use. A majority of 43% chose shekel as the word of the decade. Reflecting societal changes, the runners-up include kanyon (shopping mall), menayot (shares), shdula (lobby), yahtzan (PR person) and the sound of the time, kaletet (cassette).
The fifth decade, 1988-1998, demonstrates how quickly cassettes in any language became unwound.
The top word for this period was taklitor, compact disk (32%), itself now increasingly irrelevant as people move over to online streamed music. (As a sad aside, this is also making album covers that were as instantly recognizable as a band’s sound a thing of the past.) Other select(ed) words that reflect that period include hafrata (privatization) (26%) followed by kovetz (computer file), mekuvan (online), madpeset (printer), yedu’an (celebrity) and zachyan (franchise).
The years between 1998 and 2008 show even greater development. The word misron (SMS) was chosen by 48% as the word of the country’s sixth decade. Trailing far behind was mirshetet (Internet) (28%), one of the words that appeared in the Hebrew Language Academy’s 60th anniversary booklet (which was an actual printed product). Other votes went to hevrat heznek (start-up company), kayamut (sustainability, a word which has itself proven sustainable in Hebrew), liba (core) and navtan (GPS), a word which has yet to find a way into Israeli hearts (or to trip off the Hebrew tongue), despite being the country with the hevrat heznek that gave the world Waze.
In an only-in-Israel phenomenon if ever there was one, in honor of the country’s 70th anniversary President Reuven (groovy Ruvi) Rivlin’s voice will be the voice of the nation, giving out instructions to drivers using Waze for the week starting with Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day).
And that brings us up to the present time. Not surprisingly, yisumon (app) was chosen as the word of the country’s seventh decade (53%). Lagging far behind were partzufonim (emoticons) (14%), and behind that ta’agid (corporation), mehlaf (interchange), mitveh (outline), bolanim (sinkholes) and patzhan (hacker).
The chosen words reflect a natural progression. In the accompanying project, the Hebrew Language Academy’s Words of the Year reflects similar developments, starting with sar, minister, in 1948, the year of independence, and on to hesket (podcast), in 2018.
The year 1949 was symbolized by agra, fee, while last year, 2017, the word of the year was tisat hesech, low-cost flight, reflecting the Open Skies economic policy and the fact that after the early years of diplomatic isolation, Israelis have a wide range of destinations to travel to.
Still there’s no place like home, especially this time of year. A TV news report this week noted that although the back-to-back Remembrance and Independence days run into Friday and Shabbat, making a long weekend away feasible, there has been a drop in the numbers of Israelis leaving the country, probably because they wanted to be here for the 70th anniversary celebrations.
Some terms have almost worn out their use in time.
Fortunately, the austerity programs and transit camps can be considered passing phrases and phases in a country where “shopping” is now a thing even in colloquial Hebrew, and is increasingly done on the Web (or mirshetet.) We are part of the global village and a superpower in the virtual world.
There’s a uniquely Israeli word (or phrase) for it: As I noted in my “Say what?” Hebrew spot in this paper’s In Jerusalem supplement last week, every year, despite the arguments, the torch lighters at the traditional eve of Independence Day ceremony conclude their speeches with the words “Letiferet medinat yisrael,” “To the glory of the State of Israel.” It’s fitting that they have the last word any year.