Hebrew Slang

Fred Skolnik


The Hebrew language has come a long way since its ancient beginnings. For nearly two millennia it was and was not a dead language. Jews without another common language spoke it to one another and of course wrote it in their correspondence and their religious and literary works, but the Hebrew they spoke and wrote had barely developed as a living language since mishnaic times and in this sense may be likened to Church Latin. When my grandfather, a rabbi who came from Bialystok and lived in America for 35 years, tried to speak Hebrew, it was essentially this ancient language with whatever modern phrases and constructions he had picked up from hearing Israeli speech. His Hebrew might be compared to the Modern Greek of a classics professor after a summer or two in Athens, or to my own efforts so speak German, which somehow always come out sounding like Yiddish.

Though the Bible was produced by many hands and written in many styles, biblical Hebrew, at least in its narrative portions, produces an effect of the utmost simplicity and matter-of-factness (we cannot even begin to imagine the spoken language of the biblical street). Strong on repetition, it uses around 9,000 different words (in a total of 600,000) while the King James Version uses 12,000 and Shakespeare, in all his writings, 30,000 (of a total 900,000 words), like Joyce in Ulysses (of a total 265,000). Paradoxically, the “richer” language of the King James Version captures the spirit and dignity of the Hebrew Bible perfectly (unlike such pedantic and lifeless translations as that of the Anchor Bible). This Hebrew is a Western (or Northwestern) Semitic language closely related to such languages as Phoenician and Ugaritic (though there is much debate among scholars about classification and connections). The Eastern group, the oldest, includes Old Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian; the Southern (or Southwestern) group includes Arabic; and the Northern (inland Syrian) group includes Amorite and Aramaic, the latter branching off into Western and Eastern Aramaic, the languages of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively. By the second half of the first millennium B.C.E., Aramaic had begun to replace Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews under Persian rule. Perhaps as early as the time of Ezra (5th cent.), Hebrew reading of the Bible in the synagogue was followed by an Aramaic translation. On the other hand, mishnaic Hebrew, which was in fact vernacular Hebrew, was still being spoken at the time in Judea, where most of the Jews returning from the Babylonian Exile had settled. Related to Classical Hebrew in the way that the Hellenistic koine and Late or Vulgar Latin are related to Classical Greek and Classical Latin, mishnaic Hebrew continued to be spoken until the destruction of the Second Temple in the 1st century C.E. As the written language of the Mishnah, which was closed in 200 C.E., it is concise and unadorned, as befit the vehicle used to epitomize rabbinic deliberations pertaining to the Law, and set the standard for the codes and commentaries produced by the rabbis over the next 2,000 years. This is not to say that medieval rabbis could not write well. The Hebrew of Maimonides’ 12th century Mishneh Torah (“Repetition of the Law”) was unparalleled in its clarity and elegance, while liturgical and secular poetry drew upon the Bible for its language. Later, when Abraham Mapu set out to write the first modern Hebrew novel (Ahavat Tziyyon, 1853), he too wrote in biblical Hebrew.

The work of reviving Hebrew as a modern spoken language in the Zionist era was pioneered by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda beginning in the 1880s. This involved the invention of many new words, which were often not accepted by Hebrew speakers, as would be the case later on with the committee-inspired neologisms of the Hebrew Language Academy. What Hebrew speakers often preferred to do was Hebraicize foreign or international words. I can still remember Menachem Begin speaking about democracy in the Knesset and then, in an aside, deriding a Knesset member for using foreign words, until it was pointed out to him that the word demokratia that he was so fond of was also a foreign word. In any case, working with this newly revived language was a unique experience, at least for writers. Aharon Megged remarked once that when he began writing Hebrew fiction in the 1940s, he felt that each sentence he wrote was a first-time event, that is, the first time Hebrew words had been put together that way. I understand this perfectly, for I experienced the same feeling when I first undertook to write Hebrew prose, though more in a personal sense.

I began to speak Hebrew when I lived on a kibbutz for a year in 1959/60. My initial sense of the language was that it contained not a few tongue-twisting elements that really didn’t belong in a spoken language, making Hebrew speech, to my mind, a little stiff, though I’m sure that native-born speakers did not feel this at all. The repetition of the same plural ending (the feminine –ot or the masculine –im [pronounced eem]) in a string of five or six consecutive words simply grated against my ear, as in “Ha-banot melukhlakhot ve-einan muchanot lechakot le-maggevot ba-miklachot ha-mechurbanot shelekhem” (“The girls are filthy and aren’t going to sit around waiting for towels in your goddamned shower rooms”). That sort of thing.

The second thing that struck me about spoken Hebrew was the paucity of slang. In my entire year on the kibbutz I remember hearing regularly very few words that might qualify, including such Yiddishisms as fryer (“sucker”) and mispar (lit. “number,” from Yid. nummer, derived in turn from the German), meaning a “character,” that is, anything from a mamzer to a clown (le’asot mispar, on the other hand, meant to get laid [lit. “do a number”]), as well as the Russian/Yiddish protektzia (“pull”), an essential aid in negotiating the country’s bureaucracies, and chatikhah for, well, a piece of ass. There was of course also an abundance of Yiddish and Arabic curse words that had worked their way into the language, but not a great deal beyond that. Therefore I was not really edified when Dahn Ben-Amotz and Netiva Ben-Yehuda published their best-selling slang dictionary, Millon Olami le-Ivrit Meduberet, in 1972, as entertaining as it was. To begin with, it ran to barely 250 pages and contained maybe 5,000 entries (cf. the 50,000-or-so entries in Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang). Secondly, many of these were simply idiomatic expressions and a great many, again, were foreign, though in all fairness, while they themselves translated their title as “World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang,” the Hebrew term used by the authors means “spoken Hebrew,” and this is closer to the truth.

Merriam-Webster defines slang as “an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “language of a highly colloquial type, considered as below the level of standard educated speech and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense.” All this naturally includes jargon and vulgarisms. But as I say, the World Dictionary contains an abundance of entries that are not slang at all, many of them literal translations or equivalents of Yiddish, English and other foreign expressions, such as “lost his head” (ibbed et ha-rosh), “a different story” (sippur acher [ch as in Chaim]), “the small hours” (ha-sha’ot ha-ketanot), “cards on the table” (kelafim al ha-shulchan), “green light” (or yarok), “bee in his bonnet” (juk [jook] ba-rosh), “I got news for you” (yeish li chadashot bishvilkha), “move your ass” (taziz et ha-tachat), “sweat blood” (hizi’ah dam), “not a chance” (lo ba ba-cheshbon), “crazy about her” (met aleiha), “out of gas” (nigmar ha-sus), “my old man” (ha-zaken sheli), “momma’s boy” (yeled shel imma; cf. Yid. mames kind/yingele), “jerk” (debbil), “led him by the nose” (hovil oto be-af), “made mincemeat out of him” (asah mimenu ketzitzot), “made in his pants” (asah ba-mikhnasayim), “made waves” (asah galim), “made faces” (asah partzufim), “made money” (asah kesef), “lived it up” (asah chayyim), “and how!” (ve-od eikh!), “busted his ass” (kara et ha-tachat), “took things in hand” (lakach et ha-inyanim ba-yadayim), “since when?” (mah pitom), “who’s who” (mi va-mi), “freezing cold” (kor kelavim; lit. “dog cold,” from the Rusian), “bloodsucker” (motzetz dam; also in Russian), “gasping for air/breath” (im ha-lashon ba-chutz), “drove him crazy” (bilbel et ha-mo’ach), “lost his mind” (yarad me-ha-pasim; nafal al ha-rosh), “chaos” (balagan, bardak, androlomusia), “nothing special,” “no reason,” “just kidding” (stam; from Yid.), “took to heart” (lakach la-lev), “heart of gold” (lev shel zahav), “open mind” (rosh patu’ach), “loose screw” (chaser boreg), “doesn’t know his ass from his elbow” (lo yode’ah me-ha-chayyim shelo), “kept on a short leash” (hichzik katzar), “played it safe” (halakh al batuach), “split his sides” (hitpake’ach/hitpotzetz mi-tzchok), “big mouth” (peh gaddol), “hole in the head” (chor ba-rosh), the last infiltrating English (“I need this like a …”) as well as Hebrew from the Yiddish vi a loch in kop, as was the case with “go know” (Yid. gay vays; Heb. lech teda) and “don’t ask” (freg nisht; al tishal). Often, too, as can be seen, the same colloquial phrase exists in more than one language, so that it is not always clear via which language it came into Hebrew, and the foreign languages themselves are mutually interactive, Yiddish being fed by Russian, Polish and other languages, including Classical Hebrew, as well as by German, and English too having its Anglo-Saxon roots.

English is also up there with Yiddish and Arabic when it comes to the many borrowed words included in the Dictionary, pronounced, or mispronounced, with an Israeli accent of course: bullshit, boss, babysitter, beatnik, barman, caliber (big man), chance, five o’clock (cocktails), homo, hippie, job, joker, killer, lunch (lantch), nonstop, original, pop (pup) for music and art, shock, solo, super, stop, snob, special, sexy, svinger (bon vivant), test, tip, toaster, tramp (hitchhike), yesman, so what and big deal, to mention just a few. Some Israelis pronounce these borrowed words, and especially American names, with an American accent (using in particular the American r), which sounds a little affected, as when an American gives an exaggerated French twist to phrases like coup de grâce or double entendre, so either way they can’t really win. And some words become a little garbled in transition: pendel for penalty, pantcher for puncture (flat tire), mesting for mess tin, teesher for T-shirt and svetcher for sweatshirt. And of course, once back axle got into the language, it was only a short step to front back axle.

Yiddish, of course, gave Hebrew a full and familiar range of colorful words: chutzpah, dreck, luksh, nebech, nudnik, pisher, pupik, putz, shlumper, shmegege, shmendrik, shmuck, shnorer, shvitzer, and also broch (imbroglio, dilemma), foyleshtik (monkey business), greps, gurnisht, kuntz, macher, mishmash, pulke, pitchifkes, shmuntzes, plonter (predicament), pekelach, shvung (momentum), shluk (sip, but more like a slurp or pull, as the sound of the word suggests), shmates, shpitz, shpritz, tzutzik (smallfry) and tussik or tuches, the latter apparently from the Hebrew tachat (bottom), showing how, via Yiddish, Hebrew words may reenter the spoken language through the back door, so to speak. However, while the old Yiddish standbys persevere, other Yiddish expressions, while remaining “on the books,” are heard less and less as Yiddish speakers die off and Yiddish culture wanes, like zitzflaysh (stick-to-itiveness) and katchke (silly goose), for example. As for Arabic, we have ahalan (hi), ahbal (dumbbell), ars (punk), bakshish (bribe), basa (today’s “bummer” or “downer”), batich (nada), bichiat (really), bukra fil mishmish (believe it!), chabub (pal), chanterish (a drag; crap), chara (shit), dachilak (please, enough, come on), dir balak (watch your step!), dugri (on the level), hafleh (feast), jora (cesspool; dirty mouth), kef (fun) and ala kefak or ala kef-kefak (great, as in “How’s everything?” “Great!”), kishta (scat), mabruk (congratulations), mabsut (satisfied), mastul (smashed, stoned), nachs (bad luck), sababa (great!), sachten (to your health!), sharmuta (slut), sulha (burying of the hatchet), tchizbat (tall story), tembel (dunce), and ya habibi (wow!), among others.

Chronologically, it may be said that the early settlers brought the Yiddish with them from Eastern Europe, picked up the Arabic from the Arabs here, and got the English first from the British during the Mandate period and then from the Americans through their films (which furnished the ubiquitous “happy end” – “heppy end” – of Hebrew speech, the -ing getting lost somewhere between Hollywood and Tel Aviv) and other cultural imports. Sometimes, too, Israelis were too provincial, or ignorant, to recognize the force of the foreign words they adopted. Kus (rhymes with puss) for cunt, adopted from the Arabic, is not only used in the street but heard regularly in the sitcoms and soap operas, not to mention the less dignified talk shows, and now we have kus’-eet too, referring to a woman as such, even affectionately, as has occurred with the word nigger (or “nigga”) among American blacks. In actual fact, despite the Arabic origin of the Hebrew word, it is precisely the English “cunt” or “pussy” that is the real inspiration, as Arabs do not habitually talk about women the way Westerners do. Also “fuck,” which becomes fack (rhymes with sock), is regularly exclaimed without any real sense of what is being said, though focking is perceived as somewhat strong even if one does not grasp the full force or resonance of the word. At the same time, a word like manyak with its independent Arabic (cocksucker) and English (maniac) origins became totally confused in Hebrew speech and has been used in both senses, sometimes with the (inexplicable) force that the British “bloody” had fifty years ago and therefore not heard in polite society, and sometimes with far less sting for someone acting in a crazy or outrageous way. I would guess that the word was first used in the Arabic sense by Oriental Jews and then picked up by Ashkenazi Jews in the mistaken belief that it derived from the English word.

But it would be unfair to look at Modern Hebrew as a pastiche of pithy or useful loan words and translated or adapted colloquialisms. From the start, Hebrew also evolved organically, whether or not influenced by the concepts and structures of other languages, and by the time the World Dictionary came out it was a fully developed language with a word for everything and the language of the street fairly supple, as in avodah aravit (sloppy, i.e. Arab, work), mizmez (made out, felt up), chatikhat chara (piece of shit), tustus (motorbike), katan alav (beneath his dignity), ikhseh (ugh), dafak (screwed, banged, racked up), zeh lo zeh (not quite it), kafeh hafuch (cappuccino, latte), biryon (talmudic big and strong, now bully, thug), yeled tov yerushalayim (boy scout), shovav (mischief maker), notenet (puts out), arabush (Arab), tafur alav (made for him), sachut (wiped out), sam pas/zayyin (don’t give a shit); the biblical le’azazel (god damn!), dos (Ultra-Orthothox Jew), vus-vus (Ashkenazi Jew in Oriental parlance), frenk (Oriental Jew in Ashkenazi parlance), tchach-tchach (Moroccan or Oriental ars), eikh ani? (am I something or what?), yeish lo kabbalot (he’s got the track record), giz’i (cool), kartzi’ah (nudnik; lit. tick)), metzubrach (down), shtuyot be-mitz agvaniyot (bullshit), lehazrik (shoot up), mah yeish lekha? (what’s your problem?), sachek otah (go for it), sabbon (sissy; lit. soap) and yafeh nefesh (bleeding heart or sensitive soul).

In this context, it is not without interest to compare the development of Hebrew with the development of standard British English, which began as a robust language (the language of Shakespeare and Pepys) but today strikes at least an American ear as calcified and effete, despite the borrowings from American films. (Yes, the British know how to call someone a fucking asshole but if they really want to be devastating they’ll call you a bloody fool or a little twit.) H.L. Mencken put the blame on Samuel Johnson, arguing that by telling people how to talk his famous dictionary repressed the natural tendencies of the language. I wonder; for it is experience that produces character and it is character that produces language, though there is clearly a boomerang effect and once everything is in place, language itself shapes both character and our response to experience. (Certainly the fact that a three- or four-year-old Israeli child can say something like “lo echpat li” [“I don’t care!”] in the sullen, aggressive voice picked up by everyone in nursery school goes a long way toward shaping his character.) I cannot say how the British became what they are. Turner has given us a Frontier Hypothesis for the Americans, and Michelet epitomized the Gallic or Celtic temperament very nicely in his Histoire de France, while we can see how the Arab preoccupation with honor and dignity rubbed off on Oriental Jews and how the virulence of East European antisemitism shaped the self-effacing and fatalistic nature of East European Jews (made familiar to us via Yiddish humor). For the island races we have Sansom’s History of Japan telling us that Japanese reserve and formality came from the need to carve out personal space under overcrowded conditions, but the population of England barely reached 4 million in the Late Middle Ages and it is only later that its cities became giant cesspools. In any event, I suspect that the Elizabethans, irrespective of the niceness of their language, exhibited the same constipated manner of speaking as the British do today (though Noah Webster contended that 18th century American speech was closer to Shakespeare’s English than contemporary British speech), and that it is this characteristic emotional repression more than anything that has determined what they have done with their language. Part of this no doubt stems from geography – the northern clime does not encourage vitality – but the mix of Norse and Anglo-Saxon stock grafted onto an Old Roman base is absolutely deadly. To put it simply, the British are not an imaginative people, in the sense that the Americans are, and this comes through in their language (irrespective of the great imaginative writers they have produced), that is, in the transition from standard or public school English to colloquial English (irrespective of British working-class speech), something holds them back – is it tradition? – so that they find it difficult to think beyond the proper word or phrase. Even their sportscasters don’t know how to loosen up (“How did that pahss find its intended recipient?” Eurosport 2 wonders, while down in the poolhall, if someone happens to “pot” a few balls he will have made a fine “contribution” on his “visit” to the table and perhaps “reduce the deficit” [i.e., cut his opponent’s lead]). Thus British speech always hovers around the literal and the formal, while Hebrew, like American English, has clearly gone in the opposite direction, pulling toward the figurative and the graphic, for the simple reason that Jews are livelier than Englishmen and lack traditional restraints.

In 1982, Ben-Amotz and Ben-Yehuda (no connection to the Ben-Yehuda) brought out the second volume of the Dictionary, with about the same number of entries. It was not as if the spoken language had doubled in size in a period of ten years. For the most part they filled in what they had overlooked in the first volume – some more Yiddish, including a full range of culinary delights from chunt or chulent to kishke and kreplach, to which may be added klafteh (bitch, from the Aramaic kalbta), stutz (one-night stand, fling), tzingaleh (hand-rolled cigarette; joint) and tzitzim or tzitzkes (tits); some more Arabic: achla (great!), aleihum (mob attack; lit. “get them!”, e.g. the Jews, but, in Hebrew, ganging up verbally as well), asli (cool), ashkara (today’s “totally”), basta (market stall), dawin (shvitz), farsh (crappy, but also roach), fashla (screw-up), fadicha (faux pas), frecha (bimbo), mangal (barbecue) and sachbak (yours truly; a chum or buddy), to which one may add franji (spiffy; lit. “French”), chnun (nerd; possibly adopted under the influence of the Hebrew mechunan [gifted]), hivriz (avoided, stood up; played hooky), shvoya shvoya (easy does it), walla (wow, right on), yallah (let’s go), and y’ani (like, I mean); and still another procession of English loan words: action. bikini, cable, chips (french fries), don’t ask (dunt esk), gentleman, loser, vinner, sendvitch, fleshbeck, reverse, full gas, full volume, fight, freak, large (generous), legitimate (legitimi), poster, popcorn, plier, protection, pudding, lynch, overdraft, shopping, tissue, pusher, joint, sniff, trip, wow! Many of these words are not even perceived as English but have simply become part of the Hebrew language and some have been turned into conventional Hebrew verbs, like leflartet from “to flirt,” letarped from “to torpedo” (i.e., undermine) and ledaskes from “to discuss” (perhaps influenced by the existing Hebrew verb meaning “to turn over the soil with a disk harrow”).

Also abundant again are the translations and adaptations from other languages: hitbashel ba-mitz shel atzmo (stewed in his own juices), hotzi mimeno et ha-mitz (ran him ragged), hotzi lo et ha-avir/ruach me-ha-mifrasim (took the wind out of his sails), shamar al profil namukh (kept a low profile), lo nishar chayav (gave as good as he got), asah hatzagot (put on a show), heirim oto al til (let him have it), ta’ut chayav (mistake of his life), attah mesapper li (you’re telling me), eich she-lo yiheyeh (whatever happens), rak zeh chaser li (that’s all I need), halevai alai (I should have such luck), she-tissaref (go to hell), mah ha-nezek? (what’s the damage?), lo ba be-chesbon (no way), chotemet gumi (rubber stamp), avad alav ba-einayyim (pulled the wool over his eyes), kotz ba-tachat (pain in the ass), zanav bein ha-raglayim (tail between the legs), nafal me-ha-raglayim (fell from his feet), regel echad ba-kever (foot in the grave), rosh ba-ananim (head in the clouds), rosh tov (good head; Yid. a guter kop), rosh keruv (meathead), perach kir (wallflower), meruba (square), yeled pele (wunderkind), kokhav ([media] star), yoter mazal mi-sekhel (more luck than brains), me-achorei ha-gav (behind his back), gav la-kir (back to the wall), mi-khutz la-techum (out of bounds), mi-tachat le-khol bikkoret (beneath contempt), tachat ha-shulchan (under the table; Yid. untern tish), mi-tachat la-chagorah (below the belt), kevisah melukhlekhet (dirty laundry), hilbin (laundered [money]), pil lavan (white elephant), parparim ba-beten (butterflies in the stomach), tzippor lailah (nightbird), yashav al ha-gader (sat on the fence), retzach ofi (character assassination), pag’a u-verach (hit and run), yarad/nafal ha-asimon (finally got it; Brit. the penny dropped), yarak lo la-partzuf (spat in his face; Yid. hut geshpign in punim), ha-kaddur ba-migrash shelo (the ball’s in his court); to which one may add kemo etzem ba-garon (like a bone in the throat; Yid. vi a bayn in haltz), lo nolad etmol (wasn’t born yesterday), sippurei savta (old wives’ tales; Yid. bubba mayses), and mischak yeladim (child’s play),

But most importantly the 1982 Dictionary documents the continuing saga of a language in the making under its own steam. Thus we have: ain efes (can’t lose), gadol alav (more than he can handle), tippul shoresh (complete overhaul), hitcharpen (freaked out), shum-klum (zilch), ibbed et ha-tzafon (lost his way), eizeh yofi (how nice), ain davar (that’s okay), ella mah (obviously), be-oto rosh (eye to eye), biblet/birber/kishkesh/pitpet (babbled), bigdei alef (Sunday best), ben-tovim (rich kid), ben-zonah (son of a bitch), be-fuks (on pure luck), bitzu’ist (man of action), ba-tachat (up yours), dafuk (messed up), chatif (snack), chokhmolog (wiseguy), yisrabluf (deception, Israel-style), kachol-lavan (blue and white, i.e., product of Israel), kise’ach (kicked his ass; from Arabic kasach), lo na’im aval lo nora (could have been worse), histalbet (came down on; also “hung out,” from the Arabic), zibbul (bullshit), zaruk (down and out, unkempt, slovenly), mi-kan ad le-hoda’ah chadashah (from now on), me’anyen et ha-tachat sheli (I don’t give a shit), nishbar ha-zayyin (had it up to here), nidlak/daluk (turned on), nischaf (carried away), asah choshvim (thought it over), pilpulatzia (splitting hairs), ratzutz (wiped out), takhman (weasel), tafas pikkud (took charge), bulbul (wee-wee), lachutz (stressed), keta (scene, bit, thing), hayita met (you wish), shiga’on (crazy, wild!).

Since that time, Hebrew slang has continued to make enormous strides, and over the past 20 years has undergone something of an explosion. Ostensibly, this is to be attributed to the increasing number of young native speakers, who have taken over the language from their immigrant and/or old-fashioned parents and made it their own. However, we should not overlook the role of television in the process. Many years ago, Norman Mailer traced the 15-year odyssey of the words “hip” and “hipster” from the streets of Harlem to the living rooms of white middle-class America, a journey that took them from black jazz musicians to white jazz musicians, from white jazz musicians to the beatniks, and from the beatniks to the rest of us. Today such a journey will take approximately 15 minutes, as evidenced by the word “chill,” which white high school students were using in less time than it took coke to move from Lenox Avenue to the Upper East Side. The infiltration of Black American speech into the white American home via the television screen is a sociological phenomenon of the first magnitude. In Israel, television was inaugurated in 1968 with a single state-run channel. A second channel went into full commercial operation in 1994, as did cable television. In viewing terms this meant the decline from a fairly low standard (the standard of journalism) to an even lower one (the standard of nonstop entertainment), so that whereas in the early days of Israeli television, panels of pipe-smoking academics and other respectable types solemnly talked to death the issues of the day as formulated by earnest “moderators,” today the talkers are as often as not young celebrities, that is, the brightest members of an entire subculture of not particularly talented entertainers who get by on “wit” and “personality.” These are the propagators of the new language.

But while television is the primary vehicle for the dissemination of the language of the street, it does not itself create the language, other than its own jargon. Where this language comes from and where Hebrew slang is today can best be seen in Ruvik Rosenthal’s Millon ha-Sleng ha-Makif, published in 2005 with 10,000 entries, as well as in Nissan Netzer’s Ivrit be-Jeens (“Hebrew in Jeans,” 2007), an academic study with thousands of typological examples.

What serves in Israel as one of the great makers of slang is of course the army. In the United States, army slang has had little popular impact since World War II, when army life was experienced by a broad cross-section of the population. In Israel, large segments of the population still serve, and war is an everyday reality. Therefore, the language is brought into the home and familiar to everyone, including the countless acronyms that military organizations everywhere are so fond of, from tzahal for the IDF itself, ramatkal for the chief of staff, machat for brigade commander and magad for battalion commander, right down to the hapless shin-gimmel, the guard who gets blamed for everything when there is a huge foul-up. Also: chirnik (infantryman), milu’imnik (reservist), hesdernik (yeshiva student doing abbreviated army service), jobnik (noncombatant), chatam keva (signed up), felafelim (rank insignia of higher officers), kodkod (commander), namer (tiger; also chayyah [animal]), nohel shakhen (use of neighbors as human shields when approaching houses of terrorists), viddu harigah (making sure an enemy is really dead by putting a bullet through his head), profil 21 (equivalent of U.S Army Section 8 for mental unfitness but also including physical unfitness), regilah (rest and recreation), diskit (dog tag), gafrur (soldier, in radio communications; lit. matchstick), gibbush (tryouts for elite units), hakpatzah (rousting soldiers for rapid deployment), tirturim (tormenting soldiers with pointless tasks), hishlim tziyyud (made up missing equipment by stealing it), zubbur (hazing), rut, sof (over and out). As in other languages, such terms are given new meanings in civilian life. Thus petzatzah becomes bomb(shell) or sex bomb (petzatzat min) and chomer nefetz (explosives) becomes sensitive information or a touch-and-go situation, and we are all familiar with such expressions as leharim yadayim (give up), nirdam be-shemirah (sleep on one’s watch) and al ha-kavenet (in one’s sights).

The drug scene also makes a contribution, as there are now around 300,000 users in the country (an army in itself), though Rosenthal lists fewer than 150 drug-related terms (cf. the 7,000 listed by America’s National Institute on Chemical Dependency). Some are simply taken over from English (as is the case with the language of computers, the Internet and telecommunications): coke, chrystal, ecstasy, junk, grass, downer, dealer, high, pipe, speed, user; but we also have kef (cf. the Moroccan kif, known to readers of Paul Bowles if not from personal experience), shakhtah (drag, from the Arabic), kreez (withdrawal symptoms, from the French crise) and Hebrew terms like etzba (finger) and esev (weed). On the other hand, the language of criminals has had little impact, though crime in Israel has blossomed as quickly as language in the past 20 years. A policeman is therefore still a policeman and a gun is still a gun. This is because Israel does not make Hollywood films to bring this language to the middle class, nor are criminals admired in the way they are in the United States. In America, romanticization of the criminal stems from a deep-seated resentment of authority, not to mention the way the country wears people down, and hence the celebration of anyone who defies the system. In Israel, this resentment finds a different outlet, expressing itself in left-wing politics, as it still does in America though not to the same extent as in the 1960s. “Can those men have hated their fathers that much?” shrewdly wrote Dos Passos of the Old Left’s “impacted resentment against the established order.” However, the spoiled children of Israel’s New Left have no ties to or sympathy for the downtrodden and dispossessed of the Other Israel and therefore resent the established order on behalf of the Palestinians. (Oddly enough, this same resentment of authority afflicts the right in America, proving that conservatives and liberals suffer from the same diseases.)

It is also not surprising that the mass immigration from the Former Soviet Union in the 1990s has had no impact on Hebrew slang, or on the face of the country as such. The old Russian standbys remain in place (kibinimat, yoptfoyomat) but there is no interaction between the two languages. Like American immigrants, the Russians consider their own culture superior to Israeli culture so that while assimilating economically they are less interested in assimilating culturally and socially. On the other hand, their Israeli-born children, though retaining the Russian language and some of the culture, aspire to, and succeed in, assimilating totally in the Israeli milieu, like the second generation of Jews in America. (What is almost comical, by the way, is that Ethiopian children living in mixed immigrant neighborhoods, as in Petach Tikva, now curse in Russian.)

Religious Jews too have a special idiom and their own slang. In the so-called national-religious camp (kippot serugot), the term no’ar ha-geva’ot (hill boys) has come into prominence, referring to the teenage settlers who run rings around the army in the barren hills of Judea and Samaria, as has tag mechir (payback; lit. “price tag”), referring to their acts of vandalism against mostly Arab property in retaliation for terrorist acts or for government action against unauthorized settlements. Among the ultra-Orthodox (haredim), the idiom is largely in Yiddish, but they are also fond of Hebrew terms like okhel chazir, i.e., porkeater, for a nonreligious Jew; antishemi, i.e., antisemite, for a Jewish critic of religious coercion or privileges; and even the Arabic shabab for their own troubled youth. As for Yiddish in general, Netzer analyzed a 1993 slang lexicon of around 2,500 terms and found that about half were of foreign derivation, and of these, Yiddish comprised 49%, Arabic 27% and English 15%. This may seem surprising, for as already mentioned, many Yiddish words and phrases, while still in the lexicons, are being used less and less, so that while you may still hear expressions like “Azoy!” and “Vus hertzach?” (“What’s doing?”) in the environs of Ashkenazi synagogues, you are not likely to hear them in the nightspots of Tel Aviv and on university campuses. On the other hand, as with English, certain words and expressions are so completely a part of the Hebrew language that they are no longer perceived as Yiddish (though admittedly people speaking any language are rarely cognizant of the origins of the words they use). Thus we have ototo (right away), lenashnesh (from nash), kuter (whiner), firgun (support and encouragement), tachles (practically speaking; again through the back door as a Yiddishized Hebrew word: tachlit), the bis of ten bis (give me a bite) and even the zbeng of zbeng ve-gamarnu (wham-bam), the last being a favorite of politicians smugly telling television audiences that problems can’t be solved that way. But more than anything, Yiddish remains embedded in Modern Hebrew via the countless figures of speech that Yiddish-speakers naturally translated into Hebrew as they sought to express themselves in their new language and which have become an inseparable and indistinguishable part of the spoken language. Netzer, for example, identifies the following, among many others, as fairly early adaptations: hotzi oto me-ha-kelim (drove him crazy), yatza be-zol (got off cheap), sichek be-esh (played with fire), shalaf me-ha-sharvul (pulled out of his sleeve), kefotz li (up yours), shavar millah (broke his word), dibber el ha-kir (talked to the wall; Yid. hut geredt tzu der vant); nikhnas la-na’alayim shelo (stepped into his shoes), tippes al kirot (climbed the walls; Yid. iz gekrucht oyf der vant).

Yiddish, like Arabic, however, has all but played itself out as an active element in the creation of spoken Hebrew. It is now English that furnishes nearly all the foreign loan words absorbed into the Hebrew language, and these are many: agenda, audition, amok, astronaut (far out, head in the clouds), buzz (bazz), campaign, celeb/celebrity, cool, date, deal, ex/ex’-eet (ex-husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend), focus, gadget, gay, dyke, drag queen, drama queen, gibberish, gimmick, good guy, nice guy, groupie, jingle, happening, homeless, lady, pick and roll, box and one, mainstream, nonsense, nonstop, out (of it) and out or in, politically correct, prosperity, slow motion, spoiler, stand-up (comedian), straight, style, timing, total loss, touch wood, trend, turbo (ball of fire), welcome, yuppie, on the house, up to you, by the way, don’t worry and, believe it or not, duh. These are augmented by the ongoing translation into Hebrew of whatever else crosses the Atlantic: achi (bro, dude), echad al echad (one on one), asah ahavah (made love), boreg katan (cog in the wheel), ha-ish ba-rechov (the man in the street), ibbed et ha-michnasayim (lost his pants), lavshah et ha-michnasayim (wore the pants), kesef kal (easy money), ha-kesef midaber (money talks), chomer le-machshavah (food for thought), kasheh leha’amin (hard to believe), raglayim karot (cold feet), bein ha-shurot (between the lines), shurah tachtonah (bottom line), yatza me-ha-aron (came out of the closet), aliz (gay), lech al zeh (go for it), ain be’ayah (no problem), mah she-attah omer (if you say so), magniv (cool, awesome; linked by Rosenthal to “magnificent” but clearly influenced by the Hebrew lehagniv, meaning “to sneak something in”), tishkach mi-zeh (forget it), al-gufi/gufati ha-metah (over my dead body), nikhnas ba-delet ha-achorit (got in through the back door), asah lo et ha-yom (made his day), asah shi’urei bayit (did his homework), iggel pinnot (cut corners), tzenichah chofshit (free fall), shavar et ha-lev (broke the heart), shichrer kitor (let off steam), shem ha-mischak (the name of the game), techushat beten (gut feeling), tchek patuach (blank check), ha-davar ha-ba (the next big thing), mami (term of endearment for both sexes and all ages; apparently from “mommy,” but feeling more like Yiddish), al ha-panim (flat on his face), alah al ha-atzabim (got on his nerves), pegishah iveret (blind date), chalom ratuv (wet dream), seret kachol (blue movie), kisah et ha-tachat (covered his ass), lakach ba-chesbon (took into account), hichzik etzbaot (kept his fingers crossed), and merchak yerikah (spitting distance). (Nowadays the impulse or temptation to translate English phrases into Hebrew is so great that not too many years ago I heard a politician use the absurd and literal dibburim ketanim for “small talk.”)

At the same time, however, the language continues to develop within itself, producing such expressions as efes me’upas (nonentity), bachur zahav (great guy), beli cheshbon (without thinking), beli sentimentim (without regard to feelings), zeh mah yeish (that’s all there is), hitkarnef (sold out, from the film version of the Ionesco play; rhinoceros = Heb. karnaf), hitlahemut (hysteria), yachtzan (PR man), Hamastan (Gaza), barach lo me-ha-rosh (forgot), gever-gever (man’s man), mashehu-mashehu (really something), rigushim (thrills), dubbah (fatty, for a woman), zanzonet (tramp), hazu’i (unreal), hichlif diskit (changed his mindset), hafuch al hafuch (topsy-turvy), me-ha-seratim (out of this world), mutraf/matrif (far out, wild), meturlal (nuts), mi neged mi (how things stand), lech lehizdayen (go fuck yourself), mag’il (gross), naknik (wimp; lit. sausage), nikevah/nemushah (wuss), rakhruchi (weakling), shipputznik (handyman), rechev tzamud (company car), lemankel (to direct a company; from mankal [general director]), halakh aleinu (we’re done for), asah bushot (embarrassed himself), metchukmak (pathetic), mezurgag (lousy), ba-gova ha-einayim (man to man), brogez (peeved), tzchokim (laughs), alai (on me), ain matzav (no way), ba-seret ha-zeh kevar hayinu (we’ve been there before), sho’ef le-efes (no chance) and boker tov eliyahu (the sarcastic “you don’t say”).

Of these, two particular expressions may be noted as having become relatively widespread in the last few years, one in the media and one among ordinary speakers. These are mitologi (“mythological”), replacing aggadi (“legendary”), and chaval al ha-zeman (or similarly mah zeh …?) to indicate wonder or enormity. Chaval al ha-zeman in its conventional sense means “it’s a waste of time.” The new sense means something like “don’t waste your time even thinking about it,” as in “Yeish lo bayit kazeh, chaval al ha-zeman,” i.e., “He’s got such a fantastic house you can’t even begin to describe it.” Mah zeh …? too, in its new use (otherwise it means simply “what is …?” or “what’s going on here?”), conveys this same sense, as in “Yeish lo bayit mah zeh gadol” (“You wouldn’t believe how big his house is”). Each of these last two expressions seems to have mesmerized large portions of the population, who can’t get through the day without using them.

On the other hand, media words, like mitologi, were virtually nonexistent in Hebrew until not too long ago. The natural tendency of the journalist is to speak and write in platitudes, which I imagine he thinks of as representing the popular idiom. But it is worth making a distinction between idioms and platitudes. Idioms are what all of us use when we speak or write naturally. Platitudes are what journalists come up with when they fish around for a striking phrase but, being out of their depth, settle for something familiar. Unlike writers, when they reach into the barrel nothing is there. That is why they are journalists and not novelists. In fact, whatever they touch, even if once fresh, becomes dross through excessive use. American media words like the awful “closure” and “denial,” for example, picked up from God knows what genius of a pop psychologist, then filter down into the street and become common coin for tens of millions of Americans, who now have a simple-minded way of talking about themselves and others. As I say, until mitologi came along, there really weren’t too many media words of this kind in Hebrew. Others that have fairly recently become popular, like “spin,” “outside the box” (mi-chutz la-kufsah) and “slippery slope” (midron chalaklak) were taken over from the Americans, but thank God we have not yet descended to “embedded” reporters, troop surges and enhanced interrogation techniques, nor to the solemnity with which these inanities are pronounced. (I have to confess that when I first read 1984 as a teenager, and for many years thereafter, I was convinced that Newspeak should be read News Speak.) The emphasis in Israeli broadcasting had always been on speaking proper Hebrew as a means of elevating the language and educating an immigrant population in its use. The subsequent deterioration in the use of proper Hebrew on the air comes from the younger generation, which, as mentioned, feeds off the language of the street. The word mitologi, however, is used now by the oldtimers as well, and has achieved the status of a full-fledged journalistic platitude, so that in tributes to the dead or dying everyone feels obliged to speak about “mythological” goalkeepers or songwriters. On the other hand, the word is not common in ordinary speech, being recognized in the street as a little too pretentious for everyday use, though I have no doubt that here or there some idiot will actually pick up on it, in the way that Americans pick up on such words, and use it in conversation.

Finally, I might mention another innovation of note in recent Hebrew speech – the dropping of the aspirated h at the beginning of words by the young, so that Herzl becomes ‘Erzl in true Cockney fashion and for hu halach (he went) you now get ‘u [oo] ‘alach. (In French and in certain English words [honor, humor], the h is of course unaspirated to begin with.) A cynic might suggest that it is the general tendency toward laziness and self-indulgence that discourages the young from making the minute extra effort required to aspirate the h. Needless to say, many Israeli children now spell this way too.

Spoken Hebrew still has a long way to go before it achieves the richness of spoken English or comes anywhere near the 50,000 entries of Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang. There are, after all, an estimated 250,000 words in the English language according to the strictest counts (excluding technical words, inflections and different senses of the same word, etc.), as opposed to just 100,000 in Hebrew. I suppose that the most serious criticism that can be leveled against today’s spoken Hebrew is its excessive borrowing from English, but that is beyond anyone’s control. In any case, within itself colloquial Hebrew speech continues to develop very rapidly, with old words getting new meanings and new turns of phrase mirroring perfectly the Israeli character and experience. Hebrew has thus become a living language in the most modern sense, its vitality reflecting the vitality of the country, which, despite increasing social malaise, remains its most attractive feature.


Fred Skolnik is the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He is also the author of the recently published novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books), set in Israel, and has published dozens of stories in the past few years (in TriQuarterly, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Gargoyle, Literary House Review, Words & Images, Third Coast, Polluto, Underground Voices, JewishFiction.net, The Jewish Magazine, etc.), including two Pushcart nominations.



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