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.
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


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!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • 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.