Where do some “Hebrew” words come from?

2 min read
Yonatan Engler
Yonatan Engler

By Yonatan Engler, Citizen Café Hebrew Teacher

The Hebrew language travelled all around the world for years before it became the modern language we speak today. On the way, words from different countries and cultures found their way into our everyday vocabulary. Some of these words have become so embedded in the language, most Israelis don’t even know that they actually come from different languages! Here are a few examples:

Mess (Persian)

bah-lah-gahn בלאגן

The perfect word to describe a Friday afternoon visit to the Shuk is actually borrowed from Persian! The origin, ‘Bala-khana’, is the word for attic, so it makes sense that it became a slang term for mess or chaos.

Soap (French)

sah-bon סבון

Hebrew is known for its wide variety of hygiene-related words. For example, the verb to wash in English can be translated into many different Hebrew verbs, depending on what it is you are washing – hair, clothes, floors or dishes. Surprisingly though, the common word in Hebrew for Soap is borrowed from the French ‘Savon’.

A Little Something (Russian)

choop-cheek צ’ופצ’יק

A very useful (and funny) word in Hebrew that refers to a little something, usually a part of a larger object, like the spout of a kettle. It’s often used when you forget what the actual word for that something is… the original meaning of the word in Russian is a small batch of hairs!

Tweezers (German)

pin-tzeh-tah פינצטה

This small yet useful tool does have a proper Hebrew name – מלקטת (mal-keh-teht) – from the uncommon verb ללקט (leh-lah-ket; to pick up, to collect). However the word most Israelis actually use is derived from the German ‘Pinzette.’

To Send a Text Message (English)

leh-sah-mes לסמס

It’s no surprise that everyday Hebrew is infused with words from the English language. But Israelis are really good at turning foreign nouns into legit Hebrew verbs. The verb לֵסַמֵס originated from the abbreviation SMS.

Unselfish Compliment (Yiddish)

feer-goon פירגון

This Yiddish word doesn’t have a one-word equivalent in most languages. פירגון is the act of feeling genuinely and unselfishly happy for another person’s achievements, without any ulterior motives. In a way, it’s one word that encapsulates a big part of Israeli culture – as in the lack of of these sentiments. Israelis will often say things like אפשר קצת פירגון? – can I get a bit of acknowledgement of my accomplishments?

Yalla bye (Arabic + English)

יאללה ביי

Every phone call in Israel ends with these two words, but not only are they not Hebrew – they are a combination of Arabic and English. Yalla is meant to encourage someone to do something, and bye is, well, bye.

We hope you’ve learned something new about these words, and maybe you spotted one that you know from your own language. יאללה ביי!

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