Je t’aime, Ahbal

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 17, 2010, issue of November 26, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When, early in November, Ofer Eini, head of the Histadrut, Israel’s national trade union, publicly called defense minister Ehud Barak an ahbal for illegally employing a Filipino housekeeper without proper work papers, he was using a word you won’t find in standard Hebrew dictionaries. You’ll find it in Arabic ones, though — and in Israeli slang. There aren’t many Israelis who don’t know that ahbal means “an idiot.”

It’s interesting, despite all the tensions and walls between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, how many Arabic words have become part of Hebrew slang. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Arabic is one of the three modern languages that have most affected Israeli Hebrew, the other two being English and Yiddish. True, one would have to put it in third place, because whereas English and Yiddish have had a great impact not only on Hebrew vocabulary, but also on Hebrew sentence structure and syntax, the influence of Arabic has been, on the whole, limited to individual words. Of these, however, there is a large number, some of them indispensable to the way Israelis express themselves.

One of the most versatile of these is the Hebrew colloquialism keyf — that is, “fun,” “a good time” or “enjoyable.” It comes from Arabic keyf or kif, whose basic meaning is “a good or mellow mood.” (It also, by extension, denotes a narcotic, particularly marijuana, in which sense you’ll find it in English dictionaries as “kef” or “kif.”) Keyf can be used in a variety of ways. “It’s fun to… [do X]” is keyf l’… ;“Are you having a good time?” would be “Keyf lekha?” “B’keyf” (literally, “With keyf”) is a possible answer to a question like, “Would you like to go to the movies tonight?” a context in which it would mean, “I’d love to.” As an adjective, keyf gives us keyfi, as in “Zeh haya bikur keyfi,” “It was a fun visit.” As a verb, it gives us l’kayyef, to have a good time. And the Arabic expression ala keyfak, “great” or “terrific,” has the same meaning in Hebrew. “How was the food at that restaurant?” “Ala keyfak!”

You can also answer “Ala keyfak” if someone asks, “How are you?” but it’s more likely that you would say sababa, which is an Arabic word, too — one that means “longing” or “love” in classical Arabic, but “excellent” or “first-rate” in modern colloquial Arabic. You also might (assuming, of course, that you are feeling good) say akhla, which means “the sweetest,” “the nicest” or “the best” in Arabic, and “great” or “wonderful” in Israeli Hebrew. Akhla is interesting because although it’s a very common word in Hebrew, it behaves grammatically the way it does in Arabic, preceding the noun it modifies rather than following it, and remaining the same whether this noun is masculine or feminine. Thus, for instance, whereas in standard Hebrew, “wonderful coffee” (“coffee” being masculine) would be kafey nehedar and “wonderful ice cream” (ice cream being feminine) would be glida nehederet, in slang it’s both akhla kafey and akhla glida.

Sometimes, Hebrew takes Arabic words and puts them to uses that they don’t have in Arabic. In the latter, for example, saḥeb means “friend” and saḥbak means “your friend.” In colloquial Hebrew, on the other hand, saḥbak means a “pal” or a “buddy,” the adjective saḥbaki means “chummy” or “palsy-walsy,” and the verb l’histaḥbek means “to pal around with.” Similarly, in Arabic khafif means “light” or “nimble” and can be used in combinations like khafif er-ruḥ, “light-hearted,” while in colloquial Hebrew it means “hasty” or “sloppy.” A worker who does hasty or sloppy work is a khafifnik, and l’hitkhafef means to act like such a person.

One obvious question to ask about such words is how they got into Hebrew in the first place. Did they do so via contact between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, or, rather, via Jewish immigrants to Israel from Arabic-speaking countries? In most cases, it’s impossible to tell. Not long ago, for example, I took an interest in the word khanterish, which in both Arabic and Israeli slang has the sense of a worthless thing or person, or of “bullsh-t.” It also means “adulterated tobacco.” A Palestinian I asked about it told me that back in the 1980s, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails used it as a term for the cheap cigarettes they were given as part of their rations, and speculated that it might have spread to Hebrew from there via Israeli prison guards. Since khantarish probably entered Hebrew at about this time, this seemed to me a plausible explanation. Yet when I mentioned it to someone I know whose parents came to Israel from Iraq in the early 1950s, he said: “What are you talking about? Khantarish was a word I heard at home as a child.”

It may even be that Arabic khantarish entered Hebrew via both channels. Both have been conduits of contact between the two languages, which continue to exchange words between them all the time. Just yesterday, an Arab friend informed me that nudnik is now a Palestinian-Arabic word!

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.