Hebrew Slang and Foreign Loan Words[1]  

by Raphael Sappan – – Ariel vol. 25 (1969) pp. 75-80

Reprinted by David Steinberg with permission of copyright holders


Dr. Raphael Sappan, lecturer in Hebrew Language at the Haifa University Institute, has made a study of Hebrew slang, for which he received a UNESCO prize.  The author of an English-Hebrew dictionary[2], he is now doing research on the speech of fishermen and sailors in Israel.


1. Introduction

2. slang and the Purists

3. Foreign Influence Excessive




1. Introduction

Slang is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary 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.”  So, though the term designates a category of language different from polite speech, it does not include common mistakes of the uneducated, deriving from ignorance of the rules of grammar.  Rather it applies to words newly-coined or current among particular groups, such as adolescents, soldiers and students, and also, to some extent to the public in general, and used intentionally to circumvent standard, accepted forms.

Any Hebrew beginner can immediately distinguish the slang terms which have gained currency in the language in such words as tembel for fool or simpleton, khatikha[3] (lit. piece) for a pretty girl, kherbon for disappointment or a flop, mapsut (from Arabic) for pleased or satisfied with oneself, pantsher (sic, but really the English “puncture”) for an unforeseen mishap, lebalef for to cheat (derived from the English “to bluff”) and ‘olami (lit. world-wide or world-famous), for excellent or superior.


2. Slang and the Purists

Linguists and language teachers in many countries have long been convinced that slang is an inevitable concomitant of any living, spoken vernacular.  The situation prevailing in regard to Hebrew is different.  Many leading language experts, educators and authors remain adamant in their opposition to slang (for language policy see).  Indeed, for many years Hebrew dictionaries refused to recognize its existence.  Quite simply, until recently it was taboo.

In addition to the natural revulsion, still prevalent in many quarters, and especially among the purists and the pedants, from what they choose to call “the language of the gutter,” we must bear in mind the reluctance among scholars, from the earliest days of the Hebrew renascence, to accept any deviation from the norms set by the classical literary sources.  So strong is this opposition that even those who acknowledge slang to be an inevitable product of any spoken language, contend that the time is not yet ripe for Hebrew slang to be afforded official recognition.  One of their most cogent arguments is that our slang, in its present form, is mostly foreign in origin and character, that it exists by virtue of the many extraneous[4] expressions still used by Israelis, and may well pose a serious threat to “standard” Hebrew, which has not yet struck deep roots among our local population.

Be that as it may, slang in this country has come to stay.  It was always present, to a greater of lesser extent, since Hebrew once again became a spoken vernacular several generations ago.  No man has yet discovered any effective antidote to the powerful factors which impel the spoken language to overstep the boundaries of the official vocabulary and to coin new words and expressions at will.  Nor has standard Hebrew suffered much perceptible harm in the course of time.  Certainly it will repay us to evaluate the status of the foreign words in Hebrew slang, since this will help to illuminate the process in which slang in general evolved in modern Hebrew.

The slang of other languages, too, it should be noted at the onset, is hospitable to foreign words, even though they have been spoken vernaculars for many centuries, and their vocabularies are much richer than that of modern Hebrew.  Indeed, the liberal use of alien terms and expressions is a conspicuous characteristic of almost every known slang.  In the American argot, for instance, there are many words culled not only from the mother tongues of the diverse immigrant groups (Irish, Italian, German and Yiddish), but also from the language spoken south of the border, namely Spanish.  British slang ahs imported many words from the French and other European sources (Dutch and German), as well as from the languages of member countries of the British Commonwealth.  This craving for foreign words so noticeable in the colloquial jargon need hardly surprise us, since, as we have seen, a major force underlying the use of slang is the desire, on the part of the speaker, to impress the listener by the use of unfamiliar or outlandish expressions.  To produce this effect the speaker avidly seizes upon a foreign word.  Yet, as the American philologist Menken has pointed out, few foreign loan-words, adopted into American slang , have succeeded in gaining acceptance in the standard usage.  Only those which satisfied some real deficiency, managed, after the passage of time, to take their place in formal English.  Generally the directionally flow of language is downward from standard speech to slang and not vice versa.


3. Foreign Influence Excessive

Yet it cannot be denied that the number of foreign loan-words in the Israeli slang vocabulary is still proportionately larger than in any other language, and that particularly in the initial period of the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, the majority of such terms and expressions were of alien provenance.  Thirty years ago, Daniel Persky, probably the first scholar to contemplate the study of evolving Hebrew slang, noted that “if we discern a certain popular vitality, here and there in pungent or humorous terms, we may assume that they are alien grafts.”  It should be borne in mind that the reference here is not only to direct borrowings from other languages, but also to what may be called loan-translations (i.e. words modeled more or less closely after foreign words but consisting of the speech material of the language in which they are created).  In this area also, Hebrew slang is characterized by the addition of foreign suffixes, especially – ist (like shekemist, a worker in an Army shekem – “canteen” – which itself, incidentally, was created from the initial letters of the Israel Army term Sherut Kantinot uMis’adot

 – “Canteen and Restaurant Service”) or – nik (like jobnik – one who holds a good job) and  - tchik (the Russian diminutive suffix) like katantchik – very small or infant.

The large importation of foreign words into Hebrew slang has been due to many factors.  First the renascent Hebrew language, based for the most part on ancient literary sources, was understandably poor in its resources of words or expressions possessing popular or intimate connotations, which in other languages develop over long periods of spoken intercourse.  Another reason was a close relationship with other languages in active use in this country, Arabic, the language of one section of the population, and English, the language of the Mandatory officialdom.[5]  The main reason, however, was undoubtedly the fact that the minds of the majority of Hebrew speakers were still dominated by other languages or, to be more precise, their mother tongue was not Hebrew.  And so, for many years, Hebrew slang was conditioned by the influence of the foreign tongues of the lands of origin of a largely immigrant local Jewish population[6].

In recent years Israeli slang has undergone a notable change.  The number of native speakers of Hebrew, or of those whose school language is Hebrew, has increased considerably.  Their importance has been constantly growing, especially amongst the younger generation, which is the principal source of slang.  According to reliable estimates the proportion of Jews in Israel whose principal spoken language is Hebrew rose from 25% in 1914 to 75% in 1954.  Slang invented and spoken by the younger generation has assumed an increasingly indigenous Hebrew character, while concurrently, the foreign loan-words, which abounded in the Hebrew vernacular of the parents and grandparents, have become unintelligible and have been replaced by Hebrew terms and expressions.

This change in “slang-values” – to coin a term – is most salient in the slang of the Israeli Army which produces lively and trenchant colloquial expressions.  The examples which follow, all coined within recent years, convey some idea of the Hebraizing trend in modern Israeli slang.

           basar tari (lit. fresh meat) – new recruits

           dapar, dapar efes – a derogatory term, signifying inept, incompetent[7]

           hishkhil (lit. to thread) – to score a hit on the enemy

           kadur toran (lit. bullet on duty) – the bullet “with your number on it”

           hitqapel (lit. to fold up) – made ready to flee

           lasim et mishehu al hakavenet (lit. to get your sights on someone) – to regard someone hostilely or suspiciously

           tafas shalva (lit. snatched repose) – evaded military drill or duty

Such terms contrast sharply with the argot of the Palmach, the commandos of the pre-State and War of Independence period, which included so many foreign loan-words.  Suffice it to mention finjan (small coffee-pot), chisbat (tall story) and kumsitz (bull session).  Relatively, the accretion of foreign loan-words in the present Israeli Army slang is quite small.  Most are derivations or borrowings from English like job (in the sense of a soft, non-combatant, job), faiter (fighter – a brave soldier), after (simply and abbreviation for “after duty leave,” which it connotes, and a heritage from the Army’s pre-history – the Jewish brigade Group in the second World War British Army).  Sooner or later these terms will lapse into desuetude and, we may be sure, will be replaced by words of Hebrew origin.  The process, predictably, will affect Israeli slang generally, although it is certain that not all foreign terms will disappear, not only because of the predilection for outlandish expressions which al colloquial vernaculars share, but because circumstances will compel Israel and the Israelis to maintain close contact with speakers of foreign tongues, as far as the future can be foreseen.

In sum: Israeli slang may be regarded as a faithful reflection of the peculiar linguistic situation of Jews in Israel.  In the early decades of the modern resettlement of the country, when the overwhelming majority of the Jews still spoke the languages of their diverse countries of origin, Hebrew was relegated to a position of inferiority in local slang.  Later, as Hebrew became the mother tongue of an increasing proportion of the Jewish population and particularly among the youth, the Hebrew element began to predominate.  This metamorphosis, to a great extent, runs parallel to the transformation of Hebrew over the past three generations from a learned language to a secular vernacular. [8]

[1] For more recent publications and general bibliography see and Milon ha-sleng ha-yisre'eli by Raphael Sappan; The World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang by Dahn Ben-Amotz and Netiva Ben-Yehuda, Lewin-Epstein 1972; Bet sefer zeh ahlah stuts by  Semadar Shir, Tel-Aviv : Sifriyat Ma`ariv, c1993; Slang and More; American Slang Dictionary, English-Hebrew by Ita Israely 2003. DS

[2] English-Hebrew dictionary / compiled by Ben-Ami Scharfstein and Raphael Sappan ; edited by Zevi Scharfstein, T el-Aviv : Published by Dvir Pub. Co. for Shilo Pub. House, New York, c1961

[3] For transliteration, as it appears here see DS

[4] i.e., foreign DS

[5] Examples of words of the first kind adopted into Hebrew are: ţafran – pauper, dakhilak – please, from Arabic; flik – from Yiddish or English; finito from Italian; comsi-comsa from French.  Translations of slang terms from other languages are: lesabben (sabbon=soap) meaning to beguile or deceive, from the German einseifen; leharim mekhonit (lit. “lift” – like shoplift, a car).  English speakers will find the following terms of special interest, since they have acquired a different signification in Hebrew: pantsher, derived from the English “puncture,” not only denotes the perforation of an automobile tire but any untoward occurrence, any unforeseen mishap or unfavorable circumstance.  Tremp, derived from “tramp,” has, under the influence of German, come to signify hitchhiking, and trempist a hitchhiker.  Blaind, as an adverb, does not have the same denotation as the English “blindly” from which it has been adopted, but means securely, confidently, certainly.

[6] In their influence on local slang, Yiddish and Arabic occupy first place, English the third.  Surprisingly, the influence of Ladino is very small.

[7] The word dapar is a Hebrew acronym for Highest Aptitude (psycho-technic) rating, while efes is zero

[8] See Israel Language Policy and Linguistics by Haiim B Rosén http://members.rogers.com/davidsteinberg/

Words and their History by E. Y. Kutscher http://members.rogers.com/davidsteinberg/

Israeli Hebrew  by David Tene http://members.rogers.com/davidsteinberg/

History of the Hebrew Language By David Steinberg http://members.rogers.com/davidsteinberg/