Britannia Rules the Words No More in Israel

Only Vestiges of British Speech Still Remain in Use

Trainspotting:  In Israel, one can hear only a few hints of English as it was spoken in the days of British Mandate Palestine.
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Trainspotting: In Israel, one can hear only a few hints of English as it was spoken in the days of British Mandate Palestine.

By Philologos

Published September 29, 2013, issue of October 04, 2013.
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While waiting for a train in an Israeli station the other day, I was bemused to hear an announcement in English, following a similar one in Hebrew, that said, “Smokers are requested to smoke only in the dedicated area.”

I suppose someone meant “designated,” unless the announcement concerned dedicated smokers. This kind of thing isn’t uncommon in Israel, where many people seem to think that a passing grade on a high school matriculation exam in English qualifies them to compose public signs and make proclamations in the language without bothering to consult a competent native speaker.

A few minutes later, the same voice announced that the “front wagon” of the train now pulling into the station was restricted to ticket holders with reserved seats. In British English, a “wagon” is indeed a railroad car, but it is a freight car, not a passenger car, which is a “carriage.”

Could this be a mistake going back to the days of Mandate Palestine, when the English learned and spoken was the British rather than American variety? More likely, it was recently culled from a Hebrew-English dictionary by an employee of the Israeli train system.

And yet even if “wagon” isn’t one of them, contemporary Israeli Hebrew, which is bursting at the seams with Americanisms, does have a few vestiges of the English of the British Mandate. Anyone, for example, who follows Israeli soccer (the Hebrew term for which, kadur regel, is a translation of “football,” as the Brits stubbornly misname the sport to this day) knows that a penalty kick is a pendel.

Not that there isn’t a proper Hebrew expression for it, be’itat onshin, but try using be’itat onshin in a neighborhood pickup game, and you’ll be told to go back to teaching Hebrew literature. A pendel has been a pendel since Winston Churchill was colonial secretary, and if there’s more than one pendel, they’re pendelim.

Or take the Israeli word for a flat tire, which the Academy of the Hebrew Language will tell you is teker. Forget about that. A flat is a pancher, from British “puncture,” as flat tires have always been called across the Atlantic. Pancher is a Hebrew word that has been, as linguists say, quite productive, having spun itself off in various ways.

A man who fixes flat tires is, with the help of a little Yiddish, a panchermakher. His shop is a pancheriya. If your tire has gone flat, you say “Hitpancher li ha-galgal,” and the verb hitpancher can be used for anything that has gone wrong, as in “Hitpancher li ha-yom,” “My day’s been screwed up.” Pancher has even entered Israeli criminal slang as l’pancher: to stab, shoot or otherwise seriously deflate another party.


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