Was Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman guilty of an oxymoron when, in January, he labeled fellow right-wing Cabinet members who opposed his proposal to investigate the funding of leftist Israeli nongovernmental organizations “ faynshmekerim v’karnafim ” — that is, “feinshmeckers and rhinoceroses”?
An oxymoron — from Greek oxys and moros, which mean not “oxen” and “morons,” but “sharp” and “dull” — is a contradictory combination of words, as when a person is called “a clever idiot,” or when a dream is described as “an amusing nightmare.” Although such opposites coupled together are not necessarily senseless, an idiot, on the face of it, cannot be clever, nor can a nightmare be amusing.
But can a rhinoceros be a feinshmecker? In English, nearly all of whose speakers know that a rhinoceros is a large, horny-nosed African mammal, and some of whom also know that faynshmeker is Yiddish for a person of refined taste, the answer would seem to depend on whether certain horny-nosed mammals are pickier than others about their food. In Hebrew, it’s a bit more complicated.
Faynshmeker, it’s true, means the same thing in Israeli slang that it means in Yiddish and in Yinglish or, for that matter, in German, where the word — from the adjective fein and the noun Schmecker, “taster” — is spelled Feinschmecker. The dictionaries translate it as “gourmet.” And yet, though this is indeed its denotation, it is not quite its connotation. “Gourmet” is an emotionally neutral term that says nothing about our attitude toward the person to which we affix it. Yiddish faynshmeker, on the other hand, has a whiff of sarcasm or mockery. Behind its surface meaning lurks the implication of a person of overly refined taste. “She’s a real gourmet” can be said in praise of someone. “She’s a real feinshmecker,” unless otherwise qualified, would not be.
The difference is broadly cultural rather than narrowly semantic. A society that speaks of gourmets sees nothing intrinsically wrong with appreciating or insisting on especially good food or drink and shying away from its alternative. A society that speaks of faynshmeker s, such as that of Jewish Eastern Europe, finds the gourmet’s insistence pretentious. “Food is food,” it says. “Who are you to put on airs about it? Be thankful you have it at all, because not everyone does. Don’t be a feinshmecker!”
“Feinshmecker,” whether in Yinglish, Yiddish or Hebrew, can thus also signify a snob, though a cultural rather than a social one. One wouldn’t normally say, “That feinshmecker won’t be seen with people like the Kochleffels,” but one certainly might say, “Would you believe that the feinshmecker looks down on Beethoven and won’t listen to anything later than Mozart?” And as used by Israel’s foreign minister, the word also refers to anyone overly fastidious about anything — in this case, about being fair, out of a sense of democratic principle, to one’s political enemies.
Which brings us to karnaf, a modern Hebrew neologism formed by the two words keren, “horn,” and af, “ nose.” Karnaf entered Israeli slang in the 1960s, following a successful 1962 production by the Haifa Municipal Theater of Eugene Ionesco’s now classic drama “Rhinoceros,” which was first performed in France in 1959. In this play, a thinly disguised parable of how totalitarian movements seize power in ordinary societies, the inhabitants of a provincial French town invaded by brutish and belligerent rhinoceroses gradually turn into such animals themselves until only one holdout remains: the last human being among them.
In the wake of the Haifa production, karnaf came to signify in colloquial Hebrew “a crude, rapacious person willing to trample those getting in his way,” and the verb l’hitkarnef, “to rhinocerize,” to turn into such a type. Critics of contemporary Israeli society, in bewailing its growing violence and “might makes right” ethos, have often complained about its hitkarnefut or “rhinocerization.” To the best of my knowledge, Hebrew is the only language to have been so affected by Ionesco’s play, for although the word Rhinozeros exists in German slang, too, it simply means “dumbbell” or “oaf” and doesn’t include the element of rapaciousness that karnaf does. Nor have I been able to determine which came first, the play or the German usage, which may have influenced Ionesco rather than the other way around.
It’s ironic, of course, to see Avigdor Lieberman accusing others of being karnafim when so many Israelis think of him as the karnaf par excellence. It’s also difficult to understand what could be rhinoceroslike about opposing his McCarthyist proposal (it would have been different had he called for investigating the funding of right-wing NGOs, too), or how anyone can be both a karnaf and a faynshmeker at one and the same time. It’s possible to be overly fastidious, and it’s possible to be rapacious, but is it possible to be rapaciously overly fastidious or overly fastidiously rapacious? No more, I would say, than it’s possible to be sharply dull or dully sharp. The foreign minister has indeed been oxymoronic, though he’s definitely not an amusing nightmare.
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