Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


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Where do the swear words in Modern Hebrew come from? Do any of them originate in older stages of Hebrew?

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As a student many years ago, I shared a workspace for a while with a Syrian student by name of Mahmood.

He was wary of me at first when he learned that I’m Israeli, but mellowed when he saw that I bore him no ill will. He only really relaxed, however, when I revealed to him that most of our swear words in Hebrew are Arabic.

‘Really?’ he asked, , intensely curious. ‘Give me some examples.’

 

So I told him of some of the obvious ones, such as k** u****k and in**-abuk (this is a family website, so I won’t spell them out), and more flowery ones, such as yaḥreb beitak. I also told him that there are Arabic expressions that we use not for swearing, but just as slang—such as tizzi**bi.

His eyes widened. ‘You guys say tizzi**bi? That means “the backside of the Pr***et”!’, he said, not knowing whether to be shocked, or pleased at the familiarity.

‘Oh, yeah…’ it dawned on me. ‘Sorry—it didn’t occur to me. We just use it without working out what it actually means. But we don’t use it as a swear word. We use it to mean the middle of nowhere, the back-of-beyond…’

He was fascinated. ‘What else?’ he asked me.

‘Well, we say kibb***mat—although that’s a very mild swear word, like Dammit! in English. What does it mean, by the way?’

‘I have no idea,’ he said to me. ‘It sounds like “Throw me away, dead” or something. Must be something specific to Palestinian Arabic…’

It was only months later that I discovered, to my embarrassment, that kibb***mat is not Arabic, but Russian (I should have known, since my grandmother was Russian—but she died when I was fifteen, and anyway, it’s not something that would come up in conversation with one’s grandmother). And so, too, is its cousin (which really is a swear word), Yat****mat (apologies to all Russian-speakers in this forum)…

All of which goes to show that most of modern Hebrew swearing is mostly Arabic, with the occasional Russian (dating back to the original Zionist settlers over a hundred years ago). With the exception of regular standbys such as ben-z***h, and lekh tiz***en, and yimaḥ shmo, very few swear words are actually Hebrew.

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If I time traveled to Israel in the times of King David, how much of my Hebrew would people understand?

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Interesting question. The good news is that the Hebrew of King David’s time is actually closer to modern Hebrew than that of the Second Temple period (with its considerable Aramaic influences).  This is partly due to the deliberate efforts of the Zionist leadership to hark back to the nation’s heroic past, and partly because, in the revival of Hebrew in the modern era, the narratives of the Hebrew Bible provided far more source material than the Second Temple period, when the Talmudic Sages (who were virtually the only ones putting things down in writing) tended to slip into Aramaic all the time.

As a result, the glimpses of dialogue that we see in David’s time sound remarkably contemporary.  Two examples, out of many:

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