The development of modern Hebrew slang


Excerpt from “Modern Hebrew, The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language,” McFarland Publishing, July 2014. 

As in other cultures and their respective languages, the favorite topics of Hebrew slang are differences in behavior between the sexes, dating, marriage, family relations, money, politics and politicians. Additional favorite topics in Israel for satire are exasperation with the bureaucracy and ultra-orthodox establishment, the kibbutz way of life, class differences and the income gap, crime, undesirable behavior in public places, and stereotypical images of Jews of different geo-cultural origins, Russians, Ethiopians, or the Arabs and army experience.

Many of these slang terms are still essentially English, Arabic, Yiddish and Russian stemming back to the beginning of the Mandate but there is more use of authentic and inventive Hebrew. What is most amusing is the growth of real native Sabra slang in specific geographic localities beyond Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Such terms are now used to designate “dudes”; rabanim (exclusively in Beersheba) and urdunim in Giv’atayim. “Let’s go to Haifa” may be an invitation to have sex so, be careful in planning your itinerary!

Another major development has been the growth of acronyms. For example “SaKuM” was coined to denote silverware or cutlery, absent from the vocabulary of the Bible, so the modern word was based on the initial sounds of S (sakin – knife), K (Kaf –spoon) and M (mazleg –fork). A much more recent invention is “Zabashka” representing the abbreviated form of the Hebrew words “ Zot ha baiyah shelcha “ (This is your problem).

Most of these slang terms have originated spontaneously without any planned intervention of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. In any daily conversation on the street, one can hear Hebrew terms that have undergone a transformation, so that although the root meaning of the words may be recognizable, it is not immediately obvious how to interpret their implied connotations.

Israel is a society beset with many tensions and the colloquial expressions “Davka” “Mah Pit’om” and “Kol HaCavod” are frequently resorted to as tension-releasing devices that have become an ingrained part of the language. They are interjections or philosophical expletives to combat daily frustrations for which no tourist guidebook or standard Hebrew language textbook prepare prospective immigrants and tourists.

In order to appreciate the “Davka mentality,” one must have lived in Israel for some time and have been exposed to the everyday frustrations and irksome situations which are common but do not make screaming headlines like endless frustrations in trying to wait in line—the background to the tension-releasing device of “davka.” It conveys the idea of precision and came into use during the time of the Talmud to indicate something appropriate to a particular time and situation. Its sarcastic connotations arise, however, in two, ostensibly opposite situations to mean “just when least expected” or “just for spite.” In fact, this last meaning of davka has become so common that it is frequently used, especially by children, as a verb “to davka someone,” meaning “to spite someone”.

But is this really specifically an Israeli phenomenon? Other cultures have their own colorful expressions for ironical and paradoxical situations - fate, Kismet, Karma, Fado, Destiny. These, however, by and large, deal with the great issues of human existence, Divine Retribution, life, death and honor and are often immortalized in great literature or opera. What makes the Israeli “Davka complex” special is its close linkage with the mundane, trivial commonplace experiences of the ordinary citizen.

The second cliché is “Mah Pitom?”, literally meaning “What, suddenly!?” In the Bible, pitom meaning “suddenly” is used to indicate an unexpected event that occurs very quickly. The combination of the interrogative Mah (What?) with pitom is both a form of rhetorical question and exclamation on the order of “How can any serious person ask such a stupid question or really mean what he/she is saying”? As such it is favored by teenagers in reply to their parents’ questions. It is inherently sarcastic and can be translated as “You’ve got to be kidding!” Shortly before the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, his wife Leah was asked in an on-the-spot interview by a journalist: “Aren’t you concerned that your husband isn’t wearing a bulletproof vest?” She sarcastically answered, “Why all of a sudden (Mah Pitom?); Is this Israel or Africa?” 

“Kol ha Cavod” (All the Honor!) sounds more like Biblical Hebrew. Cavod means honor. The root C-V-D signifies “heavy” and the liver (the heaviest organ in the body. Cavod and its many cognates appear several hundred times in the Bible especially in some of the most poetic verses in Psalms, and the Book of Isaiah. “Kol HaCavod” means that you are entitled by right to all the honors and recognition for your achievements. This phrase is the highest form of a compliment in modern Hebrew. It is, however, used by a much wider range of persons for much lesser achievements not forgetting an important appointment in keeping with the leveling tendency of Labor Zionism which sought to create an egalitarian society.


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