Purim Special: Words in Costume

3 min read
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher

Purim is our Jewish carnival: The streets are full of people dressed up in colorful costumes תחפושות (tahch-poh-soht), we party and drink alcohol – it’s actually a “Mitzvah,” a Jewish religious duty, to drink and celebrate on Purim – and we exchange food and sweets in a special Purim basket called משלוח מנות (meesh-loh-ahch mah-noht). In the tradition of masquerade and costumes, let’s take a look at some informal words and phrases that “dress up” in a certain way, but their actual meaning is something completely different:

Our first example is למות על (lah-moot ahl), which translates to “to die on” something. While this phrase sounds quite morbid and bleak, its actual meaning is to really, really love something! So if you want to say in Hebrew that you absolutely LOVE the beach, you would say: ah-nee meht (m.s) \ meh-tah (f.s) ahl hah-yahm אני מת / מתה על הים 

The second example is על הפנים (ahl hah-pah-neem), which translates to “on the face.” This pretty neutral-sounding slang actually describes something that really sucks or is really bad or disappointing. It could describe an event, a restaurant, a date, or even the way you’re feeling physically: אני מרגיש על הפנים – I feel (m.s) horrible.

The Third slang and a personal favorite of mine is לאכול סרט (leh-eh-chohl seh-reht), which literally means “to eat a movie. I kid you not; this is how we speak in Israel. What it means is “to freak out about something, to the point that you start imagining crazy scenarios,” as if you were watching a movie in your head. Pretty cool, right?

Our fourth example is also a pretty unique and odd phrase:לעוף על עצמך (lah-oof ahl ahts-meh-chah), which literally means “to fly on yourself.” It loosely translates as “to think you’re all that” or to over-glorify and praise yourself somewhat detachedly. If someone at work always talks about how great he is when he’s actually kinda mediocre, you could say that: הוא עף על עצמו (hoo ahf ahl ahts-moh).

You could also say that the person above is חי בסרט (chah-yee beh-seh-reht), which literally means he’s “living in a movie.” This may sound positive, like living in a movie or a fantasy land, but in Hebrew, it has a negative connotation. Unlike “לעוף על עצמך,” which is more like boasting, “to live in a movie” means to have unrealistically high expectations from your environment in a way that really annoys people.

Seventh common slang is לעבוד על (lah-ah-vohd ahl) which means “to work on”. Sounds pretty positive, doesn’t it? Well, in slang, it actually means “to trick someone”. For example, if you buy a car from a car dealership, and on the way back home, it starts breaking down, you can say: עבדו עליי (ahv-doo ah-lahy) – I’ve been tricked!  

Our last examples are words that belong to the semantic field of weaponry, but in everyday Hebrew they’re used as synonyms for “great” or “fantastic”. This phenomenon is not unique to Hebrew but appears in other languages, too, such as English, Spanish, and French. For instance, the words fire אש (ehsh), cannon shell פגז (pah-gahz) and rocket טיל (teel), are used in daily conversations:

Q: How was the party? (ehch hahy-tah hah-meh-see-bah) ?איך הייתה המסיבה

A: Wow, awesome! (wah-oo pah-gahz) !וואו, פגז

Q: Really, Was it good? (beh-eh-meht, hah-yah tohv) באמת? היה טוב?

A: Yeah yeah, it was lit (kehn kehn hah-yah ehsh) כן כן, היה אש

Language, any language, and Modern Hebrew in particular, due to its evolution throughout history, holds many hidden meanings and layers. Even slang and informal phrases can provide a small window into the culture behind them. We wish you a Happy Purim פורים שמח (poo-reem sah-meh-ahch) wherever you may be, and many peaceful days to come.

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