Linguistic Realignment


By Philologos

Published June 02, 2006, issue of June 02, 2006.
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It would be nice to think that I’ve changed the course of history. In my column last week, I criticized the widely used term “convergence plan” as a translation of the Hebrew word hitkansut, which is what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been calling his scheme of a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank — and lo and behold, in his address to a joint session of Congress on the morning of Wednesday, May 24, the prime minister dropped “convergence” in favor of “realignment.” Is he a secret reader of this column?

Alas, the dates don’t check out. Last week’s May 26 issue of the Forward with my column in it was printed in New York on Wednesday, May 24, roughly at the same time of day that Olmert was addressing Congress in Washington. Furthermore, already a week earlier, in a dispatch of which I was unaware, the Forward’s Washington correspondent, Ori Nir, had reported on the shift of terminology. In the May 19 edition of this newspaper, Nir wrote:

“Olmert has given [the American government] more than a general outline of his so-called ‘convergence’ plan — in Hebrew, ‘hitkansut,’ which can be alternatively translated as ‘ingathering’ or ‘consolidation.’ According to one source, Olmert’s advisers, in their White House meetings this week, said that Israel plans to begin calling it the ‘realignment’ plan.”

Ori Nir, then, gets credit for the scoop, and Ehud Olmert’s advisers get credit for abandoning “convergence” even before this column called on them to do so. In fact, “realignment” was not even one of the alternatives that I had discussed. Rather, these were “redeployment,” “retrenchment” and “consolidation.” But “realignment,” though it isn’t as close to the meaning of hitkansut as is “consolidation” or “retrenchment” is a big improvement on “convergence,” too. One hopes it will quickly replace it.

* * *

Three times in his address, Ehud Olmert quoted from the Bible in Hebrew, twice repeating Moses’ parting words to Joshua, h.azak ve-ematz, “Be strong and of good courage,” and once declaiming a verse from Psalms, “The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.”

Was this the first time the Bible was ever heard on the floor of Congress in Hebrew? It would appear not. Four Israeli prime ministers have addressed Congress to date — Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, Shimon Peres in 1995, Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 and now Olmert — and one of them, Peres, quoted from Scripture in Hebrew, too.

Or did he? In the official English text of Peres’s speech, we read, with a bracketed note: “[In Hebrew] He shall bestow peace on the land, and everlasting joy to its residents.” And yet, go find such a verse in the Bible! It doesn’t exist there. The closest thing to it is Leviticus 26:6, “And I will bestow peace on the land and ye shall lie down and none shall make you afraid,” and Isaiah 61:7, “Therefore in their land… everlasting joy shall be unto them.”

Did Shimon Peres think he was improving on the Bible? Or did a careless speechwriter simply get confused? One way or another, Ehud Olmert definitely has the honor of being the first person to quote the Bible in Hebrew to Congress correctly.

* * *

A large number of you have written in with comments on my May 12 column, in which I discussed the etymology of the Yiddish word kalekhn, “to become senile,” and tried tracing it to a passage in the Talmud. In doing so, I dealt with a number of other possibilities, too, including a relationship to Yiddish kalkh, “lime,” which I proceeded to dismiss. I shouldn’t have done so. As readers Bert Lippel, Gerhard Paulesich, Herbert Davidson, Dov Wachmann, Norman Zablow, Eric Blaustein, Wolfgang Rauner, Mo Carlson and David Bell have all been kind enough to point out, kalkh, and not the Talmud, is where kalekhn, together with its past participle, farkalekht, undoubtedly comes from. Mr. Bell, for example, writes:

“I had always assumed that farkalekht indeed did mean ‘limed up,’ and anatomically, the arteries of many people with senile dementia who do not suffer from Alzheimer’s show marked deposits of calcium salts or ‘lime’ within their blood vessel walls.”

Moreover, in German, in which lime is Kalk, it seems that verkalkt has the exact same meaning that farkalekht does in Yiddish. Mr. Lippel writes:

“Speaking as a yekke [German Jew], I remember well how my mother, when faced with some stubborn stupidity of mine, would say acidly, ‘Bist du [Are you] verkalkt?’ The meaning was that the arteries leading to the brain were becoming ‘calcified,’ which is of course what happens to arteries in time.”

Mr. Rauner, referring to himself as a “yekke,” too, observes that in German, “hardening of the arteries is often called Arterienverkalkung.”

And Mr. Davidson reminds me that the same term, translated from German, occurs in Hebrew medical vocabulary in the form of histaydut ha-orkim.

Nor, for that matter, does one have to go to Hebrew. The phrase “calcification of the brain” exists in English, also, as does the word “calcified,” for something that is hopelessly rigid or unable to keep up in its thinking or behavior.

I should have been able to figure it out without all your help. I guess I was a bit farkalekht myself when I wrote that piece.

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