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Car Talk: Hybrids Rule

Ze’ev Orzech writes from Corvallis, Ore:

I just read your column on the Swahili mistake of taking the syllable “ki” of kitabu [the Swahili word for “book,” from Arabic kitab] for a prefix. I had the opposite experience in Jerusalem some years ago. I had put my car in a garage to have various things fixed and one item on the bill charged me for replacing a silb. When I asked for an explanation, I was told (stupid American!) that my car had two silbim, one of which was broken. I took a moment to realize that the mechanic took the term “seal beam” to contain the Hebrew plural suffix –im.

The language of car parts and auto mechanics in Israel is indeed a sometimes comic dialect of its own. If silbim is the opposite of kitabu, breksim is the opposite of silbim, for here the English word “brakes” is construed as a singular that takes the Hebrew plural ending. And conversely, the Hebrew handbrake of your car is not a hendbrek but a hendbreks, even though you have only one of them.

Even more curious is the case of bekex. Your bekex is your back axle, but since, when the term entered spoken Hebrew back in British Mandate times, it was taken by mechanics to be a single English word of which bek was simply the first syllable, the front axle of a car is sometimes referred to in Israel to this day not as the frontex, but as the frontbekex. Generally, though, this is shortened to front, as in ha-front shelkha shavur, “Your front axle is broken.”

Does contemporary Hebrew then use no indigenous words of its own for the different parts of a car? Indeed it does, and some of them are quite venerable and distinguished. The hegeh or steering wheel, for instance, is a word whose earliest written appearance in Hebrew is in the beautiful Yom Kippur-night liturgical poem, “For we are as clay in the potter’s hands,” which has a stanza beginning, “For we are as a rudder [hegeh] in the sailor’s hands/ Grasped when he wants and released when he wants.” Other good Hebrew words, like mano’a, motor (from the verb la’nu’a, to move), though neologisms, are universally accepted. No one in Israel calls a car motor a motor, even though the adjective motori, as in a combination like tah.burah motorit, “motor transportation,” does exist.

Very often genuine Hebrew words are used alongside such borrowed and frequently mangled ones as breks or bekex. Whether your Jerusalem or Tel Aviv mechanic says breks or balam (from the biblical Hebrew verb liv’lom, to restrain or rein in, as in reining in a horse), may depend on his temperament, his education or simply the spur of the moment — although in either case, the Hebrew dictionaries will tell you that his education is lacking and that balam is as uncouth as breksim, being an incorrect back-formation from the plural form of b’lamim, the singular of which should be belem (which you would never hear if you were to visit every garage from the Golan Heights to Eilat). In other cases, the native Hebrew word exists only in theory. Although the dictionaries have maflet (from the verb lif’lot, to release or to expel), this part of your car is never referred to in Israel as anything but the egzoz, aka your English exhaust pipe.

English is far from being the only foreign language that has lent words to Hebrew auto talk. A windshield wiper, for example, can be called either a magav (from the verb le’nagev, to wipe), or a visher, from German Scheibenwischer, just as a contact is either a maga or a platina, via Spanish and Ladino platino, and the word for a tire, tsamig, is from Arabic samaj.

French has given the Hebrew auto shop quite a number of terms. The metal wheel rim on which the tire sits, for example, is known exclusively as the jahnt, from French jante, while a fender goes both by the 20-century-minted Hebrew pagosh (from the verb pagash, to meet) and by the French-derived tambon. The latter comes from tampon, a word familiar to you from its English form of “tampon,” and is itself French mechanics’ argot, since in proper French you would say parechoc.

Sometimes three languages vie for the honor of naming an auto part. A sparkplug in Israel is generally called either a matsat (from the verb le’hatsit, to start a fire) or a plahg, but in the Israeli tank corps it was long known as a boogi, from French bougie. The latter is a usage going back to the early 1950s, when, before Israel’s armored divisions switched to American Shermans and British Centurions, their mainstay was the French AMX-13. Today the main Israeli tank is the domestically produced Merkavah, which is also the biblical Hebrew word for “chariot.” That’s the same word that occurs in the phrase ma’asei merkavah, used to describe the formation of new coalition governments such as the one that Prime Minister Sharon has just presented to the Knesset, but goodness me, I’m running into next week’s column!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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