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Speak Like a Sailor

Modern Hebrew, as is well known, has had to come up with many new words for concepts and things that did not exist in the language before its late-19th-century spoken revival, or that were themselves 20th-century innovations. There are thousands of such words in Israeli Hebrew today, and dozens more of them continue to enter it every year. But what is the process by which this happens? Who decides on these words, and how are they introduced? My friend Ilan Dror, who is one of my two partners in a 24-foot sailboat that we keep in a marina near Tel Aviv, has been involved in an attempt to invent Hebrew equivalents for internationally used sailing terms and to get Israeli sailors to use them, and his experience throws some light on the matter.

Like other Israeli sailors, Ilan, the third of our trio, Izzy Almog, and I employ a mélange of vocabulary aboard our boat. Some of the words we use are traditional Hebrew ones that can be found in the Bible and rabbinic sources, such as hegeh, “rudder,” toren, “mast,” and ogen, “anchor”; others are Hebrew neologisms, like ma’alan, “halyard,” or old Hebrew ones that have been given new, nautical meanings, like h.alutz, which means “advance guard” or “pioneer” but today also has the sense of “jib,” the forward sail set in front of the mainsail. Still others are foreign words, coming from an assortment of languages, for which there are either no Hebrew equivalents or ones that aren’t used. Thus, for example, our word for “shroud,” vanta, comes from German Want; for “boom” we say boom; a boat hook is a ganch, from Italian gancio. It’s a word, Ilan says, that entered Hebrew in the early 1950s, when Italian fishermen were brought by the government of the new Jewish state to teach Jews how to fish commercially.

“We’re trying to introduce the Hebrew word kadom in place of ganch,” Ilan told us recently on a starboard tack off the coast of Jaffa — “we” being the Subcommittee for Marina and Small Craft Vocabulary, which reports to the Committee for Naval Transport Vocabulary, which reports to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the official arbiter of Hebrew usage in Israel. Ilan sits on the subcommittee with four other volunteers like himself, all sailboat or yacht owners: a former sea captain, a marina manager, the owner of a small craft insurance agency and the director of the Small Craft Licensing Bureau. Having discovered that kadom, a variant of the biblical and mishnaic kardom, “pickaxe,” is used by Israel’s Fire Department for a fireman’s hook, the subcommittee voted unanimously to recommend its official adoption in the sense of “boat hook” as well.

“I’ll be damned if I’ll say kadom instead of ganch,” remarked Izzy, who was trimming the mainsail by tightening the Cunningham sheet, known to us as ha-kahninghem. “I’ve been saying ganch all my life, and I’ll go on saying it.”

This led to a spirited debate between Ilan, the linguistic purist, and Izzy, the linguistic permissivist, over whether there was any need to Hebraize foreign sailing terms at all. This is one of Ilan’s problems: The Subcommittee for Marina and Small Craft Vocabulary can recommend kadom to the Committee for Naval Transport Vocabulary, which can recommend it to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which can okay it (the whole process, Ilan says, can take two or more years), but that still doesn’t mean Israeli sailors will adopt it. Nevertheless, the academy’s approval is important. “It’s not through the likes of you or Izzy that we’ll get Israelis to say kadom,” Ilan observed to me. “It’s through young people who don’t have old habits — children in the Sea Scouts, cadets in the navy and so forth. But the navy or Sea Scouts won’t agree to use a word that doesn’t have the academy’s seal on it. That’s why we have to get it.”

We tacked to port, and Ilan told us that his subcommittee was now trying to decide on a Hebrew term for “spinnaker,” a large sail hoisted from a crossbar when running before the wind the word for which is said to come from “Sphinx’s acre” — Sphinx having been the name of the English yacht that first hit on the idea in the 1860s. The choice, Ilan said, was among three possibilities: To Hebraize “spinnaker” phonetically into something like sfinker or sfinkar, or to adopt mifras balon, “balloon sail,” an impromptu term that has caught on spontaneously among some Israeli sailors without the academy’s backing; or else shalu’ah., a new word suggested by one of the committee members. Formed from the verb shalah., “to send,” a shalu’ah. would be a sail sent forth before the wind.

“Hmm,” Izzy said. “Sha-LOO-ah.. I rather like that. You can hear the wind in it. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind using it.”

With any luck, in two or three years the Sea Scouts will be using it, too.

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