Q&A: Which English words or phrases have been adopted in Hebrew but do not mean the same thing?

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A beq-eqs.

This is a frequent theme of mine in my Hebrew blog, in which I warn my clients (and other native Hebrew speakers) about the pitfalls of English expression.

One of the oldest—and certainly one of my favourite—examples, which go back decades, if not a century, is the word beq-eqs, which is a corruption of ‘back axle’—i.e. ‘rear axle’. You might think that doesn’t qualify as a loan word with a different meaning—until you discover that the word for ‘front axle’ is—wait for it—frontbeq-eqs

In more modern times, the most common mangled loan words are:

  • motif—which has permanently entered the Hebrew lexicon as motiv
  • ciabbata – which is irrevocably referred to as jabbetta
  • cherry tomatoes—which are known in Israel as sherry tomatoes
  • fleece—which, because of the ambiguity of the Hebrew letter p at the start of words, and an inexplicable decision by someone that ce is pronounced /z/, is pronounced by most Israelis as ‘please’, or ‘fleas’.

The most common misconstrued loan words are:

  • idili |  אידילי (‘idyllic’), which a surprising number of Israelis (including many academics) think is merely a more flowery form of ideali (‘ideal’)
  • tziniציני (‘cynical’), which in Hebrew has been adopted to mean ‘sardonic’, ‘sarcastic’, or ‘ironic’ — and only rarely in the true sense of ‘cynical’
  • refleqsiviרפלקסיבי (which is used in the sense of ‘reflective’, not ‘reflexive’)
  • pessimi פסימי which most Israelis use to denote a bleak view of the world in general (as opposed to a bleak view of the future). Similarly—
  • optimi | אופטימי = a rose-coloured view of the world.
  • [ADDED] poni | פוני = not ‘ponytail’, as you might imagine, but the fringe/bangs on the forehead. (This was perhaps the first misused loanword that I noticed as a preteen)
  • [ADDED] toqbeq טוקבק. Apparently, in the early days of the Web, someone in Israel got the idea that talkback (a two-way loudspeaker communication system used in recording studios) is the English term for a response comment on an online forum. In 2007, the Academy of Hebrew Language valiantly proposed a proper Hebrew alternative—tguvit תגובית—to no avail. The term toqbeq has stuck, and has even spread its wings. A poster for a screening of the film Tel-Aviv on Fire notes that it will be followed by a 30-minute talkback (that’s ‘discussion’, to you and me) with a certain cinema scholar:

Then there is a slew of terms that are interchangeably used to refer to either of two formally similar, but distinct, terms in English—such as:

  • humani | הומני (for both humanist and humane)
  • qlassi | קלאסי (for classic and classical)
  • miti | מיתי (in the sense of mythical and mythological)
  • The title Dr, which is liberally used by anyone with a doctorate—mainly because in Hebrew there is no equivalent to the suffix degree, Ph.D.

Conversely, there are terms which used to denote only one sense of an English word, such as:

  • qriti | קריטי (‘critical’—but only in the sense of ‘vitally important’)
  • protoqol | פרוטוקול (in the sense of ‘transcripts’, not ‘standard procedures’)

Then there are terms that are quite different from the English, because they’re actually derived from French:

  • aqtuali | אקטואלי (like the French actuel—i.e., ‘current’, and also ‘relevant’)
  • simpati | סימפטי (like the French sympathique—i.e. ‘likeable’)

Finally, there are words that have been Hebraised, but when translated back into English by their users, are revealed to mean not quite the same thing. These include:

  • kalcali | כלכלי —which strictly speaking means ‘economic’, but is frequently used in the sense of ‘financial’
  • likhlol | לכלול —which literally means ‘to include’, but is often used in the sense of ‘to comprise, constitute’
  • mitkatev | מתכתב—a favourite among Israeli art critics in particular—meaning ‘engages in dialogue with’, due to someone’s misunderstanding of the English term correspond to to mean ‘correspond with’. As my colleague Mark Levinson immortally points out in his blog: ‘I always find the one-sided claim of a dialogue irritating. I was talking with Dante the other day, and he calls it infernal…’
  • piquaḥ | פיקוח (which means ‘supervision’, as well as the more authoritative ‘oversight’, and the even more cpulsory ‘regulation’. Hence, the Israeli banking regulator is (somewhat worryingly) referred to in English as The Supervisor of Banks—which is perilously close to a mere Banking Supervisor)
  • meḥqar | מחקר—which, confusingly, means both ‘research’ and ‘[research] study’.

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