Sunday, December 29, 2013

Of Mice and Men Linguistically

The Canard Enchaîné (to which I am a proud subscriber) edition of December 11, 2013 published an article entitled “Do you speak franglish.”  This article was in response to an article in the Parisien of December 9, 2013 decrying the large scale entry of English expressions into French.  The gist of the Canard Enchaîné article was to question why, since English has no problem with French borrowings, the French should have a problem with the English language imports.  Among the cited examples of Frenchisms in English are matinee, je ne sais quoi, deluxe, cul-de-sac, petite (size), and bra.

This issue is not new.  I am reminded me of the Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which correctly noted that the upper class spoke a Russian that was strongly French, to the point of barely being able to have a conversion in pure Russian, like many Israeli Russians today.  To the best of my knowledge, this weakness in their native tongue did not seem to bother the vast majority of Russians, poor and rich alike.  In Israel when the Technion was founded, German was the mother language of most of the professors and was almost declared the language of teaching, not Hebrew.  Today in Germany, many job interviews are conducted in English, which I somehow find shocking given how important national pride is often connected with language. So, the matter of the acceptability of linguistic mercantilism, i.e. not allowing imports, is far from straight-forward.

It appears that countries that are secure in their cultural identity have no problem allowing foreign words to enrich their lives.  The expression it is no skin off my back would seem to apply.  By contrast, more insecure cultures, including the French in my opinion as they insist too much on their superiority, fret over the loss of linguistic “purity”.  In response to the Parisien article, the “language of Molière” disappeared long before Macdo and en direct live arrived in France.  Is modern French any less expressive than 17th century French?  Is modern English less rich than Shakespearean English?  They are clearly different and include words from much wider sources.  However, each language is clearly distinct from each other in form and identity. 

It takes a confident person to accept and embrace change and novelty.   Likewise, it takes a confident culture to accept that foreign words can enrich the existing vocabulary, even if a native word already exists.  As English has proven, there is no problem being able to use tiredness and fatigue.  Neither word has become extinct due to its competition.  France has been struggling with the domination of English for some now.  I believe that while English will not disappear, nor will French, albeit a bit a franglished.  Vive la difference.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Computer Program Verbalization

Many years ago, when I operated a photocopy machine (sounds funny, but true) at a large legal office in Los Angeles, the Xerox technician would correct us if we dared say the term “to Xerox a copy”, immediately reminding us that the term was to make a Xerox copy.  The reason for this insistence was the fear of over-identification of a company with a process or products, specifically the unique company name would become a public domain item, as in aspirin, originally a specific product.

Today, this concern has disappeared, especially in the software field.  People, including non-computer nerds, regularly google for information, photoshop their picture to eliminate the red eyes, and skype with their relatives abroad, or at least understand what these expressions mean.  Note that these verbs are not capitalized although they are registered trademarks nor does their trademark holder seem upset by their use.

Similarly, social media application developers love that people can icq each other, twitter a message to an athlete or just a friend, or chat by writing a text, not sitting and talking like it used to be.

These extreme successes make developers of other software drool. I am sure the Ways’ new owner would just love to have it replace the verb to gps.  Can you imagine the ecstasy of Microsoft if Windows became a synonym for panacea (like Ford’s Edsel once signified a completely lemon of a car)? Yahoo’s stock would reach the moon if to yahoo something meant provide a complete service.  Not everybody is so lucky, alas.

So, in a world when anybody can rent a limousine or tuxedo and even afford caviar from time to time, the symbol of ultimate success may, rather ironically, be found a two line entry in a dictionary. To paraphrase that Frank Sinatra song, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere……”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wintery language thoughts

As I sit writing in my home of Karmiel in the Galilee with the unfamiliar sight of snow covered the hills around me and a crispy temperature of 2 degrees centigrade, just slightly above freezing for those living in Fahrenheit countries, my thoughts wander off to weather terms.  Specifically, I consider how each language expresses those common or not-so-common winter phenomena that have to be expressed in words, especially by the news media.

English, being a root-rich language, prefers the precise single word.  It is cold, note the verb to be, but most other terms have their own specific verb form: it snows; it rains; it hails. English weather needs no help.

Nor does French. “Il fait froid”, this time using the verb faire, to have, but il neige; il pleut; il grēle.  This one-verb form makes leaning the terms much easier, eliminating the mistaken helping verb.  Of course, Americans will often say “Il est froid”, the literal translation of the English construction, but the French will understand that if they so chose.

Aside from the cold term, the Russian language goes places. The single term  [holodno] expresses the three word English phrase.  By contrast, in the Russian winter, идет снег [idyot sneg]; идет джодь [idyot djod]; идет град [idyot grad].   In all the cases, the weather, whether it is snow, rain, or hail, goes, presumably downwards.

In Israel, these phenomena clearly travel towards the ground.  When זה קר [ze kar], meaning it is cold, and ורד שלג  [yored sheleg],  יורד גשם][yored geshem], or  יורד ברד [yored barad], the snow, rain and hail literally drop.  Since we don’t know get enough of the first two, it makes sense they can be called “drop in the bucket”. 

So, if you are lucky enough to be watching the weather from the warmth of your home (with the electricity working), think about how your language expresses the complex act of precipitation.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

1 + 1 > 2

Marriage is an important part of society, however that ceremony is played out.  Of course, individual attitudes towards getting married vary, requiring or engendering a wide variety of phrases, separate but not quite equal to each other.

In neutral terms, people get married or marry, possible derived from ancient word meaning young girl, referring only to the legal status itself. The modern understanding of this term does not specify taking a husband or wife. In more archaic terms, they betroth, coming from an old English root meaning truth, or even espouse, based on an old French root meaning to take as wife, but who would actually say those?

For those more pessimistic or even negative about the whole matter, a couple could tie the knot.  This apparently derives from a Celtic tradition of a couple holding hands and making a figure eight together, following by a cord being attached between them, which was only cut when then ceremony was over.  Getting hitched is a bit of quick decision based on the attaching (or hitching) of the wagon with the wife’s possessions to the fresh groom’s horse.  The both apply a bit of fatalism about the whole matter.  Still, that is better than a shotgun marriage, where the pregnant bride’s father insists on the groom doing the “right thing”, whether he wants to or not.

Since marriage is often more of a societal act than an individual choice, it has often reflected official status.  So, the priest would join the couple in matrimony, meaning without his approval it does not count.  Similarly, the father would bestow his daughter in marriage since women’s rights are a modern phenomenon in most places.

In more equal terms, modern independent couples walk down the aisle, at least in Christian circles.  Even more egalitarian, they join together in marriage as is their right to do so.

Even if, as that old joke says, that the biggest cause of divorce is marriage, people keep on believing in synergy, i.e. 1 + 1 > 2.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hailing to the Past

In Alvin Toffler’s famous book Future Shock, he discussed the ever-increasing pace of changes over a person’s lifetime in the last two hundred years and its effect on people and society.  For example, my grandmother, born at the beginning of the 20th century, found modern life quite confusing even if she did somehow cope with it.

Watching people around me with their omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent smartphones, I started to recall the world of communication when I was growing, taking into account that I am 50+ years old.  I by no means imply that my childhood was the good old days of communication, but only how different life was some 40 years ago.
All phones were line phones, literally.  You had to sit next to the phone, no moving around.  In some countries, like Israel, customers had to wait two or more years to even get a line.  If news was urgent, generally deaths, people actually send telegrams.  The classic Yves Montand routine about the romanticism of the latter has aged well:

Outside the house, options were limited.  In the United States, local phone calls were 10 cents (as were candy bars for matter) if you were lucky to find a working phone booth.  In Israel and some European countries, they had special coins, called assimonim in Israel and jetons in France.  People used to walk around with pocketfuls of them in their pocket or purse for emergencies.  They were also considered less susceptible to inflation, making them a good investment.  Otherwise, husbands did their grocery shopping literally alone and made their own decisions, without checking with their spouses, believe it or not.  People talked in the beginning of the day, informing each other of their plans and actually waited until the evening before discussing the day’s events.  Women went to the bathroom to powder their nose (not really), not to discuss the date on the telephone. People talking out lout to themselves in the streets were considered abnormal, not normal.

There is an old Israeli joke: Why do Israelis ejaculate so quickly?  So, they can run and tell and friends.  Today, you don’t even have to run.  It is completely irrelevant whether today’s world is better or worse.  These changes over time, like differences in culture, are neither good nor bad, but merely different and food for thought.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Ecstasy of Used Book Stores or Vintage Dust

The age of the Internet has brought countless benefits, including almost instant access to facts and efficient comparison shopping, to name a few.  Alas, change does have its price.  I fear that due to the Internet, the classic used book store with its sights and smells will disappear, as did manual typewriter.

As a bookworm from a family of bookworms, I have always preferred a used book store to a library.  There is a sense of adventure that the Dewey decimal system used by public libraries seems to destroy.  Also, a treasure found there is by definition a shared one, not a private one as when you find that special book buried under 18 other books in a dusty stack in the back of the store.  Only you had the patience and perseverance to remove those other books to find that pearl of a volume, however you wish to define that.

American used book bookstores, especially in college towns, tend to be colored by the national insistence of order and profit making.  The shelves are arranged nicely in alphabetical order by writer in sections having some internal logic.  This desire to facilitate the buying experience has been taken even farther by modern used book stores, such as Powell’s in Portland, Oregon (where I worked), where coffee and pastry are available to render your decision making process even more pleasant.  That the customers are being manipulated to buy books does not make the purchase of books any less desirable, of course.

By contrast, the used book stores in Paris represent the polar opposite. The vast majority are small shops.  Any shelves that may have been installed are hidden by random piles of dust-covered books.   The organization and price seem to be random, with books on widely varying topics lying on top of each other marked by arbitrary prices for better or worse.  Some stores claim to have a specialty, such as modern art or the Far East, in which case the seller might actually know which books s/he has.  Most are manned by passive looking people who seem to be there more because they don’t want to sit around the house than for any desire to make money.  Your decision to buy or just look does not seem to affect their mood at all.  This complete lack of commercial pushiness renders the search through Paris for first-edition Simenon novels all the more pleasurable.

I regret the future disappearance of this passion, which will go the way of letter writing and flower pressing.  In the meantime, I plan to partake of this pleasure when I have the rare luxury of taking an endless walk for no purpose other than to discover what magic book is buried deep in a pile of dust.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Transatlantic Differences – A Simplified Guide

Out of sight, out of Ear, as the saying might go.  Despite sharing a common language, American and British English sound distinctive from each other.  To be fair, each of the regional variances in these countries also has a unique quality, but that does not change the truth.  In terms of speech, over time, Yankees and Limies learn to understand each other quite well (maybe with the help of a local interpreter).  In terms of writing, writers must take into account the differences between the US and UK in composing texts.

The first aspect to come to mind is spelling.  The actual differences are minor but nevertheless noticeable.  The American ize is written with an ise in England, as in rationalize/rationalise and capitalize/capitalise.  The English add the letter u in the middle of the or combination, creating honour and flavour.  Finally, Americans insist on double letters in certain words while the British are satisfied with only one, as in fulfill/fulfil and enroll/enroll.  There are many others, such as center/centre, but these words remain highly recognizable to people from both sides of the Atlantic.

In terms of vocabulary, there is a long list of items that have been given different words in the two dominant forms of English.  Some are specific to the country. For example, a bonnet, lorry, flat, and sweets in London are a car hood, truck, apartment, and dessert in Washington D.C.  Specific fields, such as accounting, have quite a long list of differences. Trickier, some words used by both sides have different meanings.  The classic example is when a Yorker eats chips and crisps, a New Yorker is consuming fries and chips.  Slang is by definition local, even within a country.

For the writer, a more important difference is the accepted writing styles.  American paragraph writing emphasizes a very strong topic sentence, the first sentence in a paragraph, declaring the topic and subtopics to be discussed, with a general summary sentence at the end.  By contrast, British paragraphs often begin with a vague opening statement but end in a thorough restatement.  Also, American usage allows a comma (,) before the words and and or in a series of items, but British usage does not require it as in blood, sweat and tears.

Writers need to be aware of these differences.  However, in terms of actual difficulty, they are a drop in the bucket as compared to the overall challenge of writing good English even for a native speaker.  So, as the French say, vive la difference!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Soul Food for a Split Soul

Every country has serious debates on what constitutes the national dish that makes it unique.  This debate is often fruitless (pun intended) because foods tend to ignore artificial political borders, as the case of baklava, and represents different groups in that society, such as grits in the United States.  Perhaps, a simpler definition of a national food, a soul food in a certain sense of the word, is the dish you have to eat after spending a year away from your homeland.  It does not have to be fancy, but has to have the unique “national” taste that you can only find at home. Having a schizophrenic identity, American, French, and Israeli, and a love of tasty food, I can offer my perspective of what each of those countries offers in terms of unique taste. 

When I visit the States, I insist on at least one meal of barbeque baby back ribs.  I also thoroughly enjoy a good steak (although I hear that Argentina has better meat).  Two other items I like are good pancakes and a thoroughly American Taco-Bell taco (any connection to Mexico is completely accidental).

France for me has to include some paté de champagne on a good baguette as well as some moules marinieres at the Côte Azur.  My sweettooth (a wonderful word, in common with bookkeeper, having three consecutive sets of double letters), is satisfied by a petit pain au chocolat, the quality of which has unfortunately significantly declined in the last decade, and a crêpe au Grand Marnier, my only childhood special dessert still as tasty now as it was then.

Israel, my home, greets me with a plate of good humus with tehina and olive oil, eaten by dipping with fresh pita , accompanied by a good sehug, a spicy accoutrement made from hot green or red peppers.  For something slightly more elegant, I enjoy a grilled musht, Saint Peter’s Fish, served with salad and some fries, enhanced by the view of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, at least in the spring and fall.  A more recent acquired taste is grilled eggplant with tahina, a simple but perfectly balanced pleasure.  For desert, the ideal light Israel desert in the summer is sweet watermelon accompanied by pieces of salty Zefat cheese, a wonderful combination.

For me, these are my national foods.  It makes no difference what their country of origin is.  The essential is that they represent the taste of home.  I don’t expect total agreement with my opinions, but am interested in hearing other thoughts on the subject.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hebrew-English Words 1 to 2 splits

In terms of the sheer number of existing roots in the language, Hebrew and English are the David and Goliaths of their kind.  While Hebrew was asleep for a few thousand years in a sort of linguistic coma, English was stealing and developing roots at a frantic pace.  Millions of foreign students worldwide are challenged, to put in nicely, by the sheer number of ways in English to express annoyingly similar ideas.

While Hebrew’s root-poverty may make it easier for learners, it makes the language much more ambiguous.     Here are some examples of a sing

When a people is being oppressed by a repressive regime, a human rights observer can get very depressed.  In Hebrew, both use the same Hebrew word, מדוכה (me-du-ke).

Likewise, whether a person deserted the army or defected from a country, in Hebrew, he ערק (arak) in Israel.

Older people (and NFL football players) may suffer from aches and pains, but all they have in Israel is כאבים (kaevim).

A solution in Washington D.C. may be effective and efficient (though it probably isn’t in reality), but in Jerusalem it is merely יעיל (ya’il].

So, pity translators into Hebrew facing a sentence talking about poor depressed people suffering aches and pains caused by a repressive army who find an effective and efficient solution to their problem by deserting their army unit and defecting to the enemy.  It does not produce a very pretty sentence in Hebrew.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pomp and Circumstances

Last week, in a notice mainly read by sports fans with too much time, the untimely death of baseball umpire Wally Bell was announced (  As I read the complete article, including an official statement from the Major League Baseball Executive Vice-President, I was struck by the difficulty language and custom is having coping with the social change and how this confusion expressed itself in the condolences for this umpire.

First, in many Western societies, divorce rates range from 30-50%, meaning that there are many people that are not married to their first spouse.  Some of them do remarry, but others, for multiple reasons, don’t formally marry again, even if they have a new partner.  This is not a new phenomenon, but society is still confused about protocol. 

In the case in hand, the Commissioner expressed his condolences to the family, an ambiguous word implying everybody, no matter the relationship.  By contrast, Joe Torre, the Vice President of the League, specifically mentioned “his girlfriend,” implying, at least to me, that is was a long-term relationship.  The choice of the word girlfriend is already a bit contrived since, if he was 48 years old, I imagine she is clearly no longer 16 years old.  Still, no good English word exists for partners that have passed the change of being girls and boys.  I think that the French copin/copine and Hebrew  חבר\חברה (Haver / havera( based on the word meaning friend, sound better to me.  The article ended by completely ignoring the poor woman by saying that he was survived by his two children.  That comment sounded rather shrill to me.  If you hadn’t paid attention to the previous quotes in that article, you would have thought he was dreadfully alone in life.

The three approaches in the article reflect the ways society has dealt with non-traditional family structure.  You can be ambiguous, i.e. family; you can be specific but forced to use inappropriate language, i.e. girl and boy friend.  Finally, one can simply ignore the reality and pretend that nothing has changed – no marriage, no status.  I hope somebody finds a nice catchy term in English to describe adult, non-married, relationships and soon as an ever growing number of people are coupled but not wedded.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sports Overdosing

Sports are part of any culture.  Organized athletics have represented an important vicarious experience in most countries, affecting their very rhythm of life.  Whether it is Olympic games in ancient Greece, hippodrome activities in the Roman world, or the ups and down of the modern football season in Europe, people feel the seasons through the existence or absence of sport.

In the United States, due to the prolonged sports seasons, an extreme situation has occurred.  At this moment, in early October, all four of the major team sports are active, specifically baseball (postseason), American football, basketball (preseason), and hockey.  On any given night now, the fan can watch a live game from morning to night or, even worse, have to make a difficult choice on which sports to watch.  For example, last Sunday, I had to choose whether to watch my Pirates (baseball) or Bengals (football). 

This is like going to the store to buy fruit and finding fresh oranges, peaches, apricots, grapes, and cherries.  Once upon a time, every season had its fruit and vegetables, for example potatoes and oranges in the winter and lettuce and strawberries in the summer.  Today, in American stores, the only marker of the season is the price – a bit higher in the offseason.
Likewise, every season had its team sport – baseball in the summer, college football in the fall, and basketball and hockey in the winter.  Today, those poor athletes seem to barely get three months off while we fans are constantly in a state of overexcitement.

So, if you are in a country that does not import fruit and vegetables from the other hemisphere and has one or two major sports played at different times, consider yourself lucky.  You feel the ebbs and flows of the passing of the year, rejoicing with every seasonal rediscovery instead of being constantly bombarded with excitement and becoming, paradoxically, blasé from overexposure to good things.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Russians have come!

Time allows perspective on historic events.  One of the most dramatic movements affecting current Israel is the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union.  Unlike the arrival of the Ethiopians, it occurred over time, quietly and relentlessly.  It clearly changed the face of Israeli society.

According to Wikipedia, more than one million Russian immigrants arrived over a period of some twenty years from 1980.  Given a base population of around four million people at that time, these immigrants represent a significant percentage.  As many settled in smaller towns throughout Israel, these newcomers sometimes increased the population by 40% in some places. 

Such a cultural infusion has had a marked effect on the country.  Russian became the dominant second language in the street, displacing the many other languages of Israeli, including Arabic.  Both male and female Russians enjoy dressing elegantly.  Even today, it is very easy to identify a Russian from a distance.  As a result, the experience of window shopping dramatically changed.  They also enjoy and are willing to spend money on restaurants.  Although even today eating out is still not inexpensive in Israel, the number of restaurants as well as the quality and variety of the food has multiplied beyond imagination.  The Russian immigration is clearly one of the factors behind this.

The new immigrants also brought their education with them.  Although some did not have university degrees, the great number of doctors, engineers, and teachers, to name a few, eventually found work in their trained professions.  Whether high tech or higher education, it is hard to imagine who worked there before this wave of immigration.  For purposes of illustration, in the engineering college where I teach, for the most part it is impossible to find anybody in the teacher’s room whose native tongue is Hebrew.  Also, most of the immigrants were laic, either by choice or lack of exposure to Judaism.  Today, eating non-kosher foods, such as shrimps and pork (white meat as it is called here), is much more common as are open stores on the Sabbath, Saturday.

Alas, the Russians are also blamed for introducing or worsening certain social ills.  Israelis, old and young, drink much more alcohol today than they did in 1980, with the corresponding increase in alcoholism.  Organized crime has thrived in the last few decades.  Broken families, with its attached social costs, are much more prevalent than during the forty years of modern Israel.  While the Russians did not invent these problems, there is some correlation with their arrival.

So, if walk down the street of Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Nazareth Elite, or anywhere in Israel, it will be hard to imagine the world before the Russians came.  Whether it is better or worse is a matter of opinion, but Israel is clearly a different country today because of the last Russian immigration.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tradition vs. Clarity – The Legal Writing Conundrum

As a legal translator, I am by definition a legal writer.  As such, I apply my history, learned tendencies, and natural instincts every time I tap that keyboard.  In my case, the following are the most dominant:
a     .      My father was a journalist and instilled me with the love of brevity, i.e. why use three words when one will suffice.
b     .      I went to law school (the University of Oregon) but never practiced law, meaning I understand but have never written original legal documents.
c     .       I am also an English teacher with a thorough knowledge and respect of grammar rules, making me someone inflexible in regards to starting sentences with but and and, to name a few.

This background places me in a dilemma when I translate contracts, my favorite type of document because it actually tries to say something even in omission.  On the one hand, I want to adopt the American “plain language” initiative.  I love to eliminate extra prepositions, archaic shall’s, and redundant legal phrases such as last will and testament.  In short, I want the average educated person to quickly read and understand what s/he is signing.
  On the other hand, I may be wrong.  I recently participated in an ATA webinar on French and English legal translating.  The speaker emphasized the importance of reiteration in English legal writing as a means of avoiding ambiguity.  For example, in the following sentence, the second, underline will should be retained to ensure clarity: The Service Provider will provide the required materials and will guarantee their appropriateness for the intended use.  The second helping verb screams at me, albeit silently.  Still, if it is more important to be precise than concise, it should remain in the sentence.

So, after listening to the excellent webinar and reading Brian Garner’s opposite thinking book, Legal Writing in Plain English (2001), I find myself struggling to determine a policy when editing other people’s translation.  Should I correct them when they are wordy and old-fashioned?  Should I change my proletariat style and learn Dickens-like English? 

In all probability, I will stick to my beliefs and prefer the informal styling of legal writing.  I may adjust my editing to be more tolerant to those that have more respect for tradition.  Still, the ideal way is the most difficult, involving two proverbs: there are many ways to skin a cat (figuratively, of course); moderation in all matters, including moderation.  In other words, I will strive to accept the individual differences in writing style as long as it does not break some holy rule, such as beginning a sentence with and.

I happily invite reactions from translators, lawyers, and others.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

McDonalds Thoughts

McDonalds is an American chain recognized worldwide.  Its trademark is branded in the minds of most of the world’s population.  There is even a foreign currency index based on the relative price of a Big Mac, quite accurate to the best of my knowledge.

Having eaten in its restaurants in three countries, not a serious achievement granted, I have noticed how much its image is localized even if the food is supposed to be identical everywhere. (Israel had to plant their previously unplanted potatoes for it.)

In the United States, McDonalds is characterized by its flexibility.  In the fifties and sixties, what distinguished it from the other hamburger joints was its extremely limited and inexpensive menu.  The original founders removed the messy condiments from the public area and created an industrial system to produce a limited menu, basically hamburger, chips (fries), and milk shakes, quickly and cheaply.  A family could pull up and get a meal, if you can call it that, in less than two minutes without spending lots of money.  Several decades later, with weight, sugar, health and competition issues changing the situation, the new McDonalds is more an anti-McDonalds.  The menu is complex, varied, and expensive.  Apparently, the new strategy is working as the chain is still making money.  So, McDonalds in the United States can be viewed as a mirror, albeit unwilling at times, of changes in American eating culture.

In France, MacDo, as it is known, entered a world dominated by the local café and restaurant.  Lunch, being the main meal, was French, long, and expensive.  Adding some traditional wine with it, a working person could easily lose two hours of the day.  As younger French needed to compete with those overworked Americans and Germans (whose work week is unimaginably more than 35 hours), they ignored the outcries of the French intellectuals and found a cheap, fast alternative – Macdo.  You’re in and out within 30 minutes and back to work.  True, it is not particularly gourmet or French, but it is American, which is cool to non-intellectuals.  So, Macdo in France is the youth’s practical revolt against the French lunch.  (I prefer the latter, but I am half French.)

In Israel, McDonalds is a goyish invasion.  It is certainly not Israeli, generally not kosher, and definitely American.  For Israelis trying to escape from their culture, there is nothing better.  To eat a cheeseburger under the Golden Arches (but not on Yom Kippur, yet) was and often still is a statement of identity:  you have gone beyond eating falafel and shwarma.  Today, even Arab villages have their local branches with the menu in Arabic (and Hebrew).  Despite or rather because of its foreignness, I have seen no lack of customers there. 

So, to paraphrase the Navy song, eat McDonalds and see the world from a different vantage point.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Plus ca change .....

During my family visit, I read an interesting book by Guy Deutscher The Unfolding of Language, published in 2005.  It discusses the development of language structure and vocabulary.

Among its premises, it states that languages are in a constant state of destruction and reformation.  He uses examples from countless languages, including English, French, and Hebrew.

The French examples were very interesting.  I learned that the double negative, ne … pas, is actually the banalization of an attempt to emphasize the negative.  Previously, the participle ne by itself signified the negative.  To add emphasize, people added terms like step or point, i.e. ne pas and ne point.  Overtime, people, the exception became the norm such that nobody remembers the single negative in French.

Another fascinating point was the evolution of the latin term illo, meaning there yonder.  It is a basic marking word representing the third degree to this and that.  Over generations, it evolved into two important words: the (le and il in French and Italian) and he (il in French).  If a speaker used in as a subject like in “There is a large tiger”, il represented the third degree of distance after I and you.  On the other hand, in the sentence, I kllled that tiger, the one over there, the could be used, dropping the unused sounds.

Finally, the origin of the French future endings was illuminated.  They copy the forms of the verb to have in French and not accidentilly.  The verb “to have” has the sense of causing something to happen.  So, if you make occur, it implies something will happen in the future.

This is only a small sample of enlightening tidbits and explanations provided by this book.   I now view the classic Parisian slang, “Je'en sais pas” not as poor French but natural development.  I recommend this book all those who love speaking and understanding languages.

Friday, August 23, 2013

National Illusion

The average citizen of the Western world, especially the political leaders, is quite disappointed with the Middle East these days.  The locals are not acting like (Western) civilized people!  True, the Israelis and Palestinians are talking to each other, sort of.  On the other hand, Israel insists on issuing building permits in the “Occupied Territories”; the Egyptian military successfully conducted a putsch and are openly repressing those democratic Muslim brothers; Assad in Syria is routinely bombing, torturing, and starving civilians, not to mention using forbidden chemical weapons; Lebanon is starting to join the fun of ethnic killing.  This is not to mention the [usual ]SNAFU  (situation normal – all fucked up] in Iraq and Afghanistan, but who wants to think of that?

This lack of respect for human rights must be quite frustrating and disappointing for right-minded Scandinavians and other Europeans, who so strongly believe in the universality of human rights.  Maybe part of the communication gap is the overuse of the word “country”  A nation  is a place where 95% of the population identifies themselves as residents of that country despite differences in religion, politics, and socio-economic status.  Lebanon is a collection of religious tribes thrown together by the French.  Syria has a history of a separate cultural identity, but politically exists as a reaction to French rule.  Egypt indeed has been an independent country for many centuries.  However, it suffers from a similar dysfunction as Turkey– a large cultural and ideological gap between the urban rich and rural poor, so wide in fact that the country is split into two, if not more, parts.  The urban, relatively liberal population views the Muslim Brotherhood as the enemy.  Therefore, it supports the Army’s oppression of the latter.  Assad knows that what will be his fate and that of his allies if he loses the civil war.  No holds are barred.  Even Israel has around 15% of the population, Israeli-Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews, who don’t consider themselves Israeli.  Still, Israel is the probably the most deserving of the title “nation”.

So, if you wonder why Middle Eastern countries are so unstable, keep in mind that most, if not all, of them are countries in name only.

P.S. Having survived moving to a new flat, I'll be away on a family visit until mid September. I will then go back to writing once a week.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Good words/Bad deeds

A euphemism, derived from the Greek root eu meaning good, is a nice word for an unpleasant concept.  In itself there is nothing wrong with that just as there is nothing improper to say good words, a eulogy, at a funeral, even if the person buried was a complete scoundrel.  If people describe their relatives as large instead of fat, it expresses sensitivity.  To call the person for whom the eulogy is being delivered the deceased instead of the dead person or the corpse adds a layer of formality that is needed on such an occasion.

However, some euphemisms are slippery linguistic traps potentially to awful acts.  To paraphrase Hannah Arendt in With Eichmann in Jerusalem, the mere act of calling the holocaust the Final Solution allowed ordinary people to commit evil acts.  Sometimes, you have to call a spade a spade.

Some examples of improper, in my opinion, embellishment include the term armed conflict for war.  The fight in Korea (1950 – present) is a war, whether or not Congress declared it, with thousands of casualties on both sides.  Ethnic cleansing is not like cleaning your house; it is genocide and a crime against humanity. Non-consensual sex is sweet-sounding word for rape, which is an ugly and reprehensible crime of violence.  Wanting to kill the Israelis means you want to kill Jews. On the lighter side, being height-challenged adds a sense of ridiculous to the already less than wonderful feeling of being short.  On the same level, having extra face does not take away from the fact that the person is bald, which may make him more or less attractive, but only adds linguistic absurdity.

So, exercise proper judgment when avoiding direct language.  It is okay to save the feelings of your loved ones, but being politically correct could lead to historically wrong behavior.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

England, English culture, and the Middle East

The British government and public have had an intimate part of the marking of the modern Middle East.  London was a controlling factor in the establishment of almost all of its current government structure (aside from Saudi Arabia, which did it the old-fashioned way, arranged marriages with all of the tribes).  Being so involved since World War I with such an irrational, uncivilized group of people has often caused the British to feel like Prof. Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, without the happy ending but with more than one Liza. 

The basic problem is that fundamentally the Arabs, with subgroups based on religion, national status such as minority or majority, and national tendencies such as Egyptian and Libyan, simply do not behave like the modern English.  They squabble, threaten each other, fight, and kill. They do not see the virtue of a nice cup of tea and cooperation.  Neither did the Gaelic peoples of the British isles not so long ago, but who remembers that? 

The Jews, excuse me Israelis, are even worse.  As long as they were willing to be helpless victims and politely request help, they were sympathetic.  Once they stopped showing respect to their betters and began forgetting their manners (which they never had very much anyway), they were no better than their Arab cousins. 

British sympathy goes with the party showing the most passive state of misery.  Refugees, Jewish or Arab, in miserable camps waiting for a solution from above, especially the magnanimous British government, touch the heart.  Insolent locals taking matters in their own hands and conducting wars and terror are so lacking class.  Israel would have probably never been created if the local Arabs had not fought the British in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  The British did not appreciate the bombing of the King David hotel either.

Whether the British prefer the Jews/Israelis or the Arabs is a question that has probably has been surveyed many times in the past.  Clearly though, the Arabs are much better at providing what the British so desire: good hospitality and proper respect. Among others, Lawrence of Arabia was truly impressed.  A guest at an Arab residence gets a comfortable chair, good food (no cucumber sandwiches), good coffee, and the feeling of being important.  An Israeli household can provide the good food and comfortable chair, but, well, arguing is an ancient Jewish tradition.  The Bible says that Moses even did it with God.  Israelis do not know how to discuss the weather for more than ten seconds, generally summarized by the sentence It is hot today.

The facts and history of the modern Middle East are apparently irrelevant.  In terms of sympathy, no matter how right or wrong either side may be, the issue seems to be “How British are you?”  Looking at the current mess here, this has turned out to be a rather flimsy basis of policy.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Like soldiers, some people are nameless.  This is a sad but true fact.  Generally, these invisible persons are either dead or victims of administration.  However, without or without a known name of birth, they must have a nomenclature.

In English, they are often referred to as John Doe, Jane Doe, and Baby Doe, reportedly after an episode of the television.  Note that the Doe is not a very common last name, fortunately as it is because most people would not want others to think that they been shot and robbed of their identity.  Another way of marking these ghostly persons is the term fnu lnu, standing for first name unknown and last name unknown.  There was an amusing story in the New York Times of people actually searching for pictures of people with the strange name of Fnu Lnu.  Apparently they thought these individuals came from Taiwan or the Philippines. 

The French have M. et Me. Dupont or Durand.  These are also not very common last names.  Other French terms are Monsieur le Monde and un citoyen en lamdaWhy a Greek letter pops up here is not clear to me.  

The Russia language goes with something the most banal of solutions.  A nameless person is иван иваиович иванов [Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov], a name, patronymic, and last name using the most common name in Russia.  This makes perfect sense, but may be a source of annoyance to those so actually named.

Hebrew has a more poetic solution that avoids any confusion with any citizen in good standing.  Instead of using David Cohen or any common name, Hebrew refuses to those silent bodies as פלוני אלמוני [ploni almoni] with the second word meaning anonymous.

I will not take the fifth amendment and instead fully admit that I wrote this column.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Sexy Terms


Anglo-Saxons, especially Americans, are rather infamous in their awkwardness in talking about sex.  See the use of “white meat” in American English to avoid using that erotic word breast.  Nonetheless, like everybody else, it is a part of life and must be mentioned from time to time.

Many different words from various language roots are used to describe the various nuances of sex.  I won’t talk about slang and swear words, which change over time.  Among standard terms, the most formal term is to have sex or copulate, with share a bed with being slightly less direct and cold.  Animals, by contrast, mate, couple with, and promulgate the species.
On a more positive emotional plane, people make love, make babies, get to know each other in a biblical sense (to quote Woody Allen), or, for legal purposes in the past, consummate the marriage.  As an aside, many upper class Victorians newlyweds were so ignorant that they never did.  

For short term purposes, young and not-so-young people sleep with each other (eventually actually sleeping), make hay even if mattresses are made of latex and springs, if you want to be crude about it, get to know each other (grin added), and fornicate, a fancy term for the f-word.

To end on a humorist note, I quote George Carlin: “why is that you can say that you pricked your finger, but not the other way around.”

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

French WTF or Linguistic Philosophy

French and English share an amazing number of false friends, i.e. words that you think you know what they mean because of their similarity with your native language but provide complete surprises.  I have had recently four encounters with words that were extremely misleading to the eye.  They include:

a.      Une radiation
b.      Un event
c.       Un acte de rectification
d.      Une autonomie limitée en temps

Put them together, you might think of a nuclear accident that needs to be fixed by quick government action.

Alas, nothing is farther from the truth. Radiation in this case means being removed from a list, such a Register of Commerce.  The event refers to an air vent for an electrical device.  An acte of rectification is a death certificate. Finally, most laptop users suffer from this autonomie, i.e limited battery life.

To clarify, my reaction to discovering these meanings was WTF or what in the hell is the connection? Looking on the bright side, life would be so boring without these linguistic puzzles.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Home is where the heart is

Two (unofficial) facts:
 1 The vast majority of North Americans that immigrate (make aliya) to Israel do not stay there (here) more than two years.
2. The North Americans that do stay here would never consider going back to their former home unless extreme circumstances required it.

I have lived in Israel for more than twenty four years.  When I visit the States to see my parents, I feel like a foreigner.  I simply have no desire to return there and would probably not go there at all if my parents were not there.  I am not alone in that feeling among my fellow “expatriates”, an aptly sounding word linking to the concept ex-patriot.
The interesting issue is the cause of this phenomenon.

Some people would think that the continual wars fought here cause people to leave. Actually, many more people come to Israel than emigrate due to the local conflicts. 

Life is not always easy here.  However, like everywhere, people struggle to make a living, raise their children, and keep their marriage together.  Young people worldwide have great difficulty buying their first apartment or house.  Educational and economic opportunity is much more dependent on individual circumstances.

If it is not the daily grind that drives away or attracts people, the cause must be more psychological.  Unlike many places, including most of the United States, there is a strong sense of collective in Israel.  While everybody has his or her own life, that life is linked with one or more tribe.  A person’s identity is linked with religion, ethnic group, and/or physical place.  You are identified by your allegiances and, consequently, with all the other tribe members. An Israeli cannot be completely autonomous.

Of course, this situation has distinct advantages.  Children don’t walk around unclaimed in the streets.   Every tragedy receives sympathetic ears.  Nobody eats alone on a holiday. People give freely and willing to the community.  If you desire the sense of belonging, you can find it in Israel.

However, being part of a collective gives everybody license to participate in your life and express opinions about it.  If you buy a new car, first people will say “tithadesh” or “mabruk”, meaning congratulations.  Then, they will ask you about where you bought it, the price, and the reasons for this model, and justifications for buying a car instead of using the money for something else they may find more appropriate. They also feel free to criticize the choice of color and accessories.  In other words, you live in a community where everybody affects everybody.   This can drive you crazy if you let it.  Many immigrants and sabras, native-born Israelis, leave the country to have the privilege not to justify their existence. 

When people ask me why I have stayed here, I am left with only one answer:  Home is where the heart is.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Evanu Shalom alechem

Hebrew, being an efficient language, gets maximum value for its words.  The word שלום [shalom] is defined in a Hebrew dictionary as peace or hello.  In practice, the wary translator has to take context into account when rendering this word into English.

When greeting someone, it does mean hello, but sometimes is used in parting, when it can be translated as goodbye.  In an argument, when someone says shalom, shalom, s/he means to say that the discussion is over.

When leaving any town in Israel, there is a sign that says סע בשלום [sa beshalom], which can be translated as either Godspeed or have a safe journey, depending on the desired style.  If someone sends דישת שלום [drishat shalom], they are sending regards.  Of course, Shalom is also a name, as in Shalom Hanuch, the singer.

By the way, the title is name of a Hebrew song, meaning “we brought peace to you.”

I hope you יצאת בשלום [yatzata beshalom] from this post, meaning you got away unscathed.  So I all can say is “SHALOM”

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tennis Localization

Tennis is a global game.  Unlike most sports, even the rules are identical worldwide.  What does vary is the language and terms used on the court.  You can know where you are by listening to the language of the players.

 Israeli has its own peculiar linguistic environment.  First, there are the necessary terms of scoring.  Since English is quite influential here, many players use the English terms: out instead of חוץ [hutz]; deuce instead of  שוויון [shivion]; and set point instead of  נקודת מערכה [nekodat me’oraca].

Secondly, there a few wonderful religious phases that can be applied to tennis situations.  For example after a service let, a player can say פעמיים כי טוב  [pa’amayim ki tov], meaning “twice because it was good” referring to third day of creation when the phrase “it was good” is used two times.  Similarly, if a player wants two serves to warm up before starting the set, s/he can say “ שתיים לאליחו  [shtiyim le Eliahu], meaning two for Eliahu in reference to the custom on Pesach to leave a cup of wine for Eliahu.  Admittedly without holy roots, a lucky shot can result in a comment like  יותר מזל משכל [yotar mazal me sechel], meaning more luck than brains, the Hebrew equivalent of better lucky than good.

The real Israeli influence is felt in curses, a mandatory part of any sport. In the case of Israel, the localization is internationalization, i.e. people curse in all languages.  You can hear Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic, Rumanian, and Yiddish, sometimes more than in one in the same sentence.  Since the person is speaking a foreign language, there are no holds barred in terms of the words used, which is a bit embarrassing if you actually understand what is being said.  Even a mild “oops” comes outs as oy vay and oy givald sometimes.

So, playing tennis is not only an athletic experience, but a cultural one also.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Israeli Negotiating Strategy

Every country has its ways of arranging matters.  These tactics receive names that may seem alien to non-resident even if the technique itself is familiar.  Israel is no different and has a plethora of terms.

If people use a מצליח [nazliya] tactic, they simply ask for what they want even if there is no basis in fact or status to attain it.  If the other side is so foolish as to agree, you  have succeeded, the meaning of the word in Hebrew.  If not, no harm is done.

Another tactic is חזק על חלשים  [Hazak al halishim], literally meaning strong to the weak.  When one party has a clear advantage over the other in terms of strength or position, it can force its position without any resistance and appear to be very strong.  Of course, the term implies that the same bully can become the victim if the tides are turned.

Another proven way of succeeding is Vitamin P.  The letter P refers to the Hebrew term פרוטקציה [protekziya] or connections.  In other words, personal connects work when personal skill is not enough.  It is not always appreciated by others, but is considered a major tool for getting jobs and promotions.

One of the most amusing tactics was personified in the movie Sallah Shabati, sometimes called the  הפוך על הפוך  [hafuch al hafuch], meaning the opposite of the opposite.  The theory is that if the other party insistד on opposing any offer no matter no reasonable it is, you can trick it by asking for what you don’t want, thereby attaining your original goal in a backwards manner.  In that movie, Sallah Shabati wants to receive an apartment.  When his requests and demonstrations don’t work, he changes his tactic to refusing any apartment.  The government then insists that he must accept an apartment.   Two negatives make a positive.

Finally, there are questions you are not supposed to ask.  These are שאלות קידבג  [she’elot kitbag] for some reason.  The term is relevant where actual policy is different than official policy.  So, if you ask if there is a certain fee for a service, for example, you will have to pay it while if you had said nothing, nobody would have charged you.

So, when in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or even Ashdod, it is helpful to understand the negotiating lingo.

I would be interested in hearing of your local terms.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Being First Does Matter

As Nike would like to remind us, almost nobody remembers the second person to walk on the moon (Buzz Aldrin). Clearly, being the first to achieve something does have its privileges. Here is short list of those winners and what they received:

The English came up with the first stamp, allowing the UK to be only country whose postal stamps do not state the country of issue.  They also invented the first way and technology to calculate latitude (pre-GPS), i.e. comparing noon in London with the local noon. This required an accurate clock, not a simple endeavor at the time, to keep London time.  Consequently, all time zones are related to GMT, which is located in England.   By the way, there was no daylight saving time to confuse the issue then.

The United States created the first operational telephone system, meaning that the international prefix (1) refers to the United States.  Even more brashly, it also created the Internet, giving American sites the privilege of adding only .com, not,, etc.  I suppose the British would say having the time zone is more practical.

In more intellectual matters, other European powers, former and current, have created the standards.  Cooking terms are in French because nobody else invested so much effort in codifying the culinary processes.  Philosophy would be much poorer and require fewer letters if Germans had not invented the right word for each complex concept.   Has anybody ever head of an opera translated into Italian?  I would agree that Italian is a wonderful language for song, certainly sweeter than German or English. 

Other cultures also have their achievements. Japan also has its claim to fame:  The sun rises there.  Although you can’t eat or send the sun, it is an illuminating asset from the Japanese point of view.  The Chinese invented thousands of items centuries before the Europeans ever even though of them, such as gun powder and noodles.  However, alas, as is typical of the last few centuries, the West brazenly stole their ideas, improved them, and used them against the Chinese.  As the expression goes, might makes right apparently.

So, the first country to invent time travel or telepathy will have its privileges too, maybe, since sometimes, as Nike says, just win.