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Glamour of Grammar: You know what they say
DR. JOEL M. HOFFMAN
04/17/2008
In Hebrew, "if already," that is, im kvar, means "what's worth doing is worth doing right." How is it possible that those two simple words convey so much meaning? Let's find out.
In Hebrew, "if already," that is, im kvar, means "what's worth doing is worth doing right." How is it possible that those two simple words convey so much meaning? Let's find out. Im simply means "if," as in the famous im tirtzu, ein zo agada, "if you want it, it is not a dream." (But be careful. The word "im" that means "if" is spelled alef-mem. The identically sounding word ayin-mem, means "with.") Kvar is more interesting. It frequently means "already," as in the song kvar aharei hatzot ("it's already after midnight"), but it has other nuances as well. In addition to referring to something that has already happened, it can add a sense of urgency. The somewhat impolite but nonetheless common tishtok kvar ("shut up already") demonstrates. In a similar vein but with more decorum, we find phrases such as ani kvar magi'a (literally, "I'm already arriving"), which means "I'm on my way," and kvar hayom (literally, "already today"), which is a nice colloquial way of emphasizing immediacy. Kohelet (the "preacher" or "teacher" of Ecclesiastes), concerned as he was with permanence and transience and so forth, liked the word kvar. In Eccl. 1:10 he teaches that even a thing that people say is new "has already been around forever," that is, kvar haya l'olamim. In 3:15, he adds that "what is to be" also kvar haya, that is, "has already been." Im kvar is the first half of an expression. It continues az kvar, literally, "then already": im kvar, az kvar. Az simply means "then." So the first part of the expression stands for "if you've already started doing something," and the second part is short for "then do it already." While you'll sometimes hear the whole thing, it's more elegant to let the first two words represent the whole thing. Other expressions, too, are commonly truncated. The Hebrew version of "to each his own" is al ta'am v'al re'ah, literally "about taste and about fragrance." (The English expression actually goes all the way back at least 2,200 years to Atilus, who is quoted by Cicero as saying, "Suum quoique amorem, mihi meum," that is, "for each his own love; mine for me.") The full version of the Hebrew expression continues the thought: al ta'am v'al re'ah ein l'hitvake'ah - "about taste and about fragrance one should not argue." As it happens, in addition to "taste," the Hebrew word ta'am means "reason" or "point." So ein ta'am, literally, "there's no taste," is a common way of saying "there's no point." Ma hata'am, literally "what's the taste," means "what's the point?" "Taste" is frequently invoked as a matter of personal preference. In addition to the English "a matter of taste" we find French ("Chacun a son gout"), Italian ("Tutti i gusti son gusti") and many others. Though taste and fragrance are certainly related, the Hebrew addition of "fragrance" to the mix has less to due with its meaning than its sound. It creates a rhyme: ...re'ah ("fragrance") ...l'hitvake'ah ("to argue"). Perhaps surprisingly, even modern, scientific cultures value rhyming aphorisms, as if rhymes are more likely to hold insight than other random sayings: "A stitch in time saves nine," "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," "April showers bring May flowers," etc. There's a certain elegance to the apocopated (that is, shortened or abbreviated) quotation of a saying. It conveys a mastery of culture and an insider's sense of shared vocabulary. Cockney English is famous for the extremes to which it takes the practice, commonly using the first word of a pair to refer to something that rhymes with the second: "Whistle" in Cockney English means a fancy set of clothes, because "whistle flute" rhymes with "suit." Even elsewhere, as with im kvar and al ta'am v'al re'ah, the practice of leaving off the second part of something seems common enough to warrant a special name. But, surprisingly, nothing presents itself. We might use "apocopated rhyming aphorism," but an apocopated rhyme is something else, and, besides, not all of the apocopated aphorisms rhyme. But I suppose it doesn't matter what we call them. After all, a rose by any other name... The writer teaches at HUC- JIR in New York City. www.Lashon.net
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