Fame’s Good Fortune

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.

Recently I came across an article in a Hebrew newspaper that bore the caption “Children of Celebrities Are Fed Up With Strange Names Given Them by Their Parents.” The article began with the complaint of Peaches Honeyblossom Michelle Charlotte Angel Vanessa Geldof, the 16-year-old daughter of singer Bob Geldof, that she would have preferred something shorter and more conventional. I don’t blame her.

But that’s not the subject of this column. Rather, it is the Hebrew word that the article used for “celebrities,” “yedu’anim.” It’s a word I never had encountered before, and it did my heart good.

How has one said “celebrity” in Hebrew until now? Well, one has said “selebriti.” That’s not a word you’ll find in standard dictionaries, but it does appear in Hebrew language columnist Ruvik Rosenthal’s newly published Milon ha-Sleng ha-Mekif (Dictionary of Israeli Slang), which has been praised widely as the best and most comprehensive Hebrew slang dictionary ever. Look up “selebriti” there, and you’ll find: “A known figure with much public exposure, yedu’an.”

“Yedu’an” comes from the Hebrew verb “yada” (“know”) and is formed from its present masculine passive form, “yadu’a” (“is known”), plus the agentive suffix –an. (The feminine would be “yedu’anit.”) This is a suffix that in “proper” Hebrew can be added to nouns (e.g., “gina,” “garden”; “ganan,’ “gardener”), adjectives (“ikesh,” “stubborn”; “akshan,” “a stubborn person”) and active verbs (“akhal,” “eat”; “akhlan,” “big eater”), but not to passive verbs. Ordinarily you never would say in Hebrew “akhulan” for something eaten. Similarly, while the verb “yada” gives us “yad’an” — a knowledgeable person or someone who knows a lot — ordinarily it wouldn’t yield “yedu’an” in the sense of someone known.

Although “yedu’an” is a new word that’s been catching on rapidly in Hebrew, it’s not one that was coined by any official body such as the Academy of the Hebrew Language, one of whose jobs it is to come up with needed neologisms. It’s too unconventionally formed for that. Clearly it’s not a word that was handed down from above, but rather one that came up from below — from the Israeli street, where someone got tired of saying “selebriti” and began using it one day. Since then, it has spread.

Why does this do my heart good? Because, as the Dictionary of Hebrew Slang shows only too clearly, much of what passes for Israeli slang — or at least is considered to be such by someone like Rosenthal — is in fact, like “selebriti,” not slang at all; it is simply a large number of words that have been borrowed from other languages, mostly English, and stuck into Hebrew with little or no phonetic or morphological processing apart from the Israeli accent with which they are pronounced. If one looks, for instance, at page 264 of Rosenthal’s dictionary, on which the word “selebriti’”appears, nine of its 24 other words belong to this category: “sakharini” (“saccharine”); “slamz” (“slums”); “slesh” (“slash,” in the sense of “or,” as in, “You can have apple pie slash ice cream for dessert”); “seleb” (short for “celebrity”); “slo moshun”; “slogen” (“slogan”); “sliz’ (“sleeze”); “slizi,’ and selektivi (“selective.”)

Real slang is a verbal folk art; it represents a people’s sense of what can be done with its own language, of how this can be shaped and molded and added to without the help of educated authorities. Taking words indiscriminately from someone else’s language is the very opposite of slang. Sometimes, of course, such borrowing is unavoidable, as when it involves new products or technologies for which there are no native words. Mostly, though, it is just a form of collective laziness or, worse yet, of having so little instinct for the creative possibilities in one’s own language that one does not know how to find or exploit them.

Yedu’an is definitely creative. It breaks a linguistic rule — and by doing so, it not only coins a handy word that is infinitely better than “selebriti”; it opens up a whole new range of other words. One could, for example, take taku’a, the passive form of the verb taka, “stick,” and create teku’an, someone who is always getting stuck. Or from tarud, which means “worried” or “preoccupied,” can come terudan, a chronically worried person. The possibilities are endless.

The Dictionary of Israeli Slang has thousands of words like “yedu’an” that are real slang because they are organic developments of modern Hebrew itself, rather than foreign expressions taken from the shelf of this or that language. And yet, Rosenthal’s dictionary is bursting at the seams with such “shelf” words and expressions. “Old-feshend,” “b’ril taym” (“in real time”), giv mi a brek, daun-to-erth, huz end huz (“Who’s and Who’s” — a garbling of “Who’s Who”), “total los,” “yu dont sey,” “long taym no si,” e tc., etc.: This isn’t slang, it’s linguistic grand larceny.

Three cheers for “yedu’an!” Let’s hope it puts “selebriti” back on the shelf. And let’s also hope that there will continue to be many more words like it where it came from. The more of them there are, the more dictionaries of Israeli slang will be dictionaries of Israeli slang.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.



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