Why Israel’s Word Of The Year Is ‘Perfect’
Each time I return to Israel, a new word greets me. I usually realize somewhere around baggage claim that a previously unused word is the word of the moment — because it’s plastered on advertisements of all kinds. Whatever the word is, I soon see and hear it everywhere, and I’m always amazed and amused at how popular a word can get, and how fast it can happen. Since my visits are often timed to the academic calendar, I can estimate that it generally takes one semester, or two semesters max, for a word to make it big.
The current omnipresent word is mushlam, or “perfect.” Then there is the feminine form, mushlemet. Mushlam comes from the word shalem, or “whole,” and somehow the idea of perfection and wholeness, in masculine form and in feminine form, is irresistible to a wide range of marketers. It is as if there is nothing to add — the experience is complete.
How could a customer possibly object to such wholeness?
I’ve seen mushlam used to hawk everything from makeup to a vacation package in Eilat. Sometimes it is attached to political proposals, a bit of a tougher sell. The idea is to convince the listener that something is so whole that it’s perfect.
Israelis always laugh when I bring up the omnipresent word, because they’re so used to it. It’s like American elevator music, always in the background. After a few weeks they always find me and say: “You’re right, that word is everywhere. I didn’t notice before.”
Before mushlam, the word I noticed suddenly popping up everywhere was migvan, or “selection.” Previously, if I wanted to buy towels, they were simply magavot, or “towels.” But at some point stores started referring to migvan magavot, or a “selection” of towels. Like mushlam, which can be used to make the same old makeup seem flawless, perfect, whole, migvan seems to be used to jazz up the ordinary. I always laugh when a waitress refers to migvan salatim, or a selection of salads, or, of course, migvan kinuchim, a selection of desserts. When I was a child they were just salads and just desserts, no migvan attached.
Just the other day, I noticed that Israel’s ubiquitous Aroma restaurant chain put up new signs advertising migvan bagels, or a selection of bagels; though I grew up in New York, the land of bagels, I felt myself getting excited. The word migvan made the familiar bagel sound like something notable and expansive. For a second there, I felt that the restaurant was offering a dining experience that was, well, mushlam.
Though advertising often provides the first hints of a word’s rising popularity, occasionally Israel’s famous (or, perhaps more accurately, infamous) bureaucracy leads the way. Renewing my Israeli passport in Chicago, I first had to speak into a phone. There were, of course, no humans in sight. Then a mysterious voice on the phone told me to wait.
In the far past, to wait was l’chakot. But at some point, that word was replaced by l’hamtin. The waiting period became hamtana. Leave it to Israel — where no one seems to be able to wait in line, and where people swarm to a bus entrance in an amorphous large blob — to jazz up waiting. Ana l’hamtin, the newer way of saying “Please wait,” somehow sounds more elegant, more modern, than the old scream — t’chaki b’vakasha, or “Wait, please.”
Maybe the hope is that ana, the “please” that appears all over the ancient prayers, will make people listen to directions, even if they involve waiting.
Apart from the omnipresent words, there are small linguistic changes that I notice on each return to Israel. I think of these as “globalization” and “anti-globalization,” a microcosm of political reality. Sometimes an English word moves into Hebrew, and sometimes the reverse happens: A word borrowed from English somehow gets a new Hebrew incarnation.
I notice this most on restaurant menus. A sandwich in Hebrew used to be, well, a sendveech — an English word. But pick up a menu, and you’ll often see sandwiches referred to as krichim, with kareech as the singular. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Haggadah refers to korech, or the sandwich of matzo and maror, or bitter herbs, made by the sage Hillel.
On the other hand, English — or lingo with some relationship to English — is creeping into menus at a rapid pace, even when there are perfectly fine Hebrew equivalents. Two words I’ve noticed are “toast,” which basically means a sandwich with melted cheese and other additions, and norvegi, an Israeli pronunciation of Norwegian, which means lox. In the old days, smoked fish was referred to as, well, smoked fish in Hebrew: dag me’ushan.
I’m curious to see how much the large influx of French immigrants, many fleeing anti-Semitism in France, will influence the Hebrew word-of-the-moment. So far, the main linguistic influence of the French seems to be on Italian immigrants, and both the Italian and the French seem to excel in the essential coffee-and-pastry division of life.
On a rainy day, I took shelter in an Italian bakery in Tel Aviv, where the waitress rushed over to offer me a cappuccino v’croissant. She seemed confused by what language to use with me, and so she went with a mixture of Italian and French. In that sentence, the only Hebrew was the vav hachibur — the letter vav or v’ sound that connects words and ideas.
I looked over at the pastry display. What she was pointing to was not a croissant, but a perfectly gorgeous-looking filled Italian pastry.
I chose the pistachio pastry, and she smiled in relief.
If only the waitress had finished off her greeting with a Hebrew phrase like, say, zeh mushlam, or, “It’s perfect,” I would have felt like I was truly in Israel instead of temporarily in Rome.
Aviya Kushner is the Forward’s language columnist and the author of “The Grammar of God” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Follow her on Twitter, @AviyaKushner