In the Israeli writer Amos Oz’s autobiographical account of childhood and adolescence “A Tale Of Love And Darkness,”to be published in English translation this spring, Oz’s father, a Hebrew University librarian with a love for words and their etymologies, says at one point to his son, “And as for your [Hebrew word] gazoz,, it comes to us straight from the French.”
Whether you know what gazoz is may depend not only on whether you’ve been to Israel, but also on when you’ve been, since this erstwhile staple of the Israeli diet began disappearing in the 1960s and has been gone for years. Once purchasable for the equivalent of a few cents at any corner stand or kiosk, gazoz came in a glass, to which was added half-an- inch of fruit syrup and a long squirt of carbonated water from a fountain. In the years of scarcity that followed Israel’s establishment in 1948, when canned and bottled soft drinks were few and expensive, gazoz was the national beverage.
But where did the word itselfcome from? I had always assumed, without thinking about it very much, that it came from gaz, the Hebrew word for “gas” that is borrowed from European languages. In this Oz’s father concurred, deriving gazoz, it would seem, from French gazé, “gaseous” or “carbonated,” although Italian gazzosa, “carbonated drink,” would look like a better bet.
And yet the other day, while reading, of all things, a biography of Turkey’s great dictator and reformer Kemal Ataturk, I came across a curious detail. At the time of the “Izmir trials” of 1926, Ataturk’s not entirely successful attempt to jail his political enemies, one of these, a certain Dr. Nazim, mockingly labeled the Turkish president “Gazöz Pasha” — translated by the biography’s author as “Little Napoleon,” with the footnote: “Gazöz: fizzy lemonade.” The Turks must have borrowed this word, along with the soft drink it designated, from the Italians — and since Palestine was under Turkish control until 1917, it is highly likely that Turkish rather than Italian was the immediate source of Hebrew gazoz. French, it almost certainly wasn’t.
Considering the fact that modern spoken Hebrew developed in Turkish-administered Palestine, there are surprisingly few Turkish words in it, the reason being that Turkish officials conducted their business with the local population in Arabic, so that few Jews had a knowledge of Turkish. One of the few Turkish words to have entered everyday Hebrew is dönüm — which, as Hebrew dunam, is the standard unit of land measurement in Israel. The only difference is that the Israeli dunam, approximately a quarter of an acre, is exactly a 1000 square meters, whereas the Turkish dönüm was 940.
Yet one or two Turkish words did enter Hebrew, so cleverly disguised, like gazoz, as European borrowings that no one has noticed them. This is the case with the kova tembel or “tembel hat,” the floppy bell-shaped head covering that used to be as ubiquitously worn in the streets and fields of Israel as gazoz was drunk, and that now, like gazoz again, has all but disappeared. The kova tembel was once the icon of the Israeli, used by cartoonists and illustrators as the sombrero is for Mexicans and the top hat for Uncle Sam; today, ironically, the only place you are likely to see it is on the heads of tourists being shepherded around by an Israeli guide.
A kova tembel resembles a soft, round dunce cap, which is why I always thought that tembel derived from English “dumbbell.” And yet ever since I discovered several years ago that tembel is the Turkish word for “lazy,” I have revised this opinion. Although the dunce cap in all likelihood did give the kova tembel its name, the dunces in question, I now tend to believe, were Turkish rather than English — not dumb pupils made to sit in a corner of a classroom in London with a conical cap of shame, but lazy ones given the same treatment in Istanbul or Izmir.
In any case, both gazoz and the kova tembel are now yok — itself a somewhat outdated Israeli slang term meaning “forget about it” that comes from the Turkish word for “there isn’t any.” And to say “Forgeddaboudit!” there is malta yok, an expression with an amusing history. In the year 1645, the story goes, the Ottoman sultan Ibrahim the Mad ordered his fleet to attack the Christian island of Malta in the western Mediterranean. Upon receiving the order, however, Ibrahim’s chief admiral, fearing such a move would end in disaster, placed a candle on his naval map, allowed the wax drippings to fall on the little island until they covered it, declared to his adjutants “Malta yok,” and sailed off to attack the Venetians in Crete. The siege of Crete lasted 24 years, in the third of which Ibrahim lost his head, and the Venetians finally surrendered in 1669. It took 300 more years for gazoz and the kova tembel to become malta yok in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to email@example.com.