‘Tzahalit’ – slang from the IDF

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‘Tzahalit’ – slang from the IDF

I think the term falafel stuck because it was a way of lessening soldiers’ fear of senior officers.”


With Israel’s third election behind us without a clear path to a coalition, the political parties are feeling the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. They are not resting on their laurels, but instead are on high alert. In order to refrain from shooting from the hip, and to not be caught with a short fuse, they are mobilizing their forces and assembling their political experts in the war room in an effort to prepare for battle as H-hour approaches.


Even though the above paragraph happens to be the fruit of my imagination, it’s easy to see how it reflects the proliferation of army slang in modern-day Hebrew.


To what extent do the two of them overlap and how much are typical Israelis using army slang in their speech?


I sat down with Israeli linguist and lexicographer Dr. Rubik Rosenthal, who recently published Speaking Tzahalit, an extensive portfolio of Israeli military slang. (Tzahal is the transliteration of the Hebrew abbreviation for Israel Defense Forces, IDF.)


“When people hear that I’ve compiled a list of Tzahalit phrases, they usually react in one of two ways,” begins Rosenthal, 74. “There are the people who say that it is a completely different language they don’t understand at all, and need someone to explain everything to them. On the other hand, there are others who say that these words and phrases have had a greater influence than anything else on today’s spoken Hebrew.


“These two statements are completely contradictory in terms of their content, and yet they are both accurate.”


So, does the truth lie somewhere in between?


“No. If you delve down deeper, you will find in the end that Tzahalit is much more closed than it is open, and despite the numerous words that trickle from it into civilian Hebrew, such as the phrase, ‘I’ll jump my daughter to kindergarten,’ it’s mostly intended for internal military use.”


Do you feel that this trickling is a direct result of such a high percentage of Israelis having served in the IDF?


“Yes, this is what happens when men and women enlist in the IDF. They meet other soldiers who come from a variety of different population groups, and then they use this language with others in civilian life once they complete their military service, including non-military words such as ‘achi’ (my brother).”


After working as a journalist and writer for many years, Rosenthal began his doctoral studies with a focus on military slang – at a fairly advanced age – over a decade ago at Bar-Ilan University. “It was important to me to focus on the social linguistics, since it had never been explored in depth before,” recounted Rosenthal.


It’s ironic that a pacifist such as yourself took an interest in military issues.


“Well, a botanist doesn’t need to be a tree. I may love listening to backpackers talk, but if you asked me to climb up a mountain, I’d probably pass out after 100 meters. Yes, I am a pacifist, but I would never say that it isn’t necessary to maintain a strong military. However, the fact that Israel is a military state bothers me greatly, since our society is violent and has shallow foundations. As someone who is extremely interested in developments within Israeli Hebrew, I’m aware of the fact that the IDF is the organization that has the largest impact on society, and so it’s essential that I explore its language.


“Tzahalit is an efficient language that was first and foremost designed to accomplish tasks, not for chitchat or expressing emotions. That’s why it’s so compact and clear. It includes professional jargon and slang words that are used only in the military, which are more creative and sometimes even border on derogatory.”


What’s the difference between jargon and slang?


“Well, the boundaries between the two are not always cut and dried. An example of slang would be calling an armored personnel carrier a Zelda. By the way, if you were ever curious who the famous Zelda was who became so embedded in military terminology, she was the wife of the American officer who introduced the armored personnel carrier to the IDF.”


Not surprisingly, the beginning of modern military Hebrew language goes back to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of Modern Hebrew, who would invent a new word if one didn’t already exist. For example, the world chayal (soldier) comes from the Arabic word chiel that means ‘knight,’ and from the biblical root chet-yud-lamed. In later years, Ze’ev Jabotinsky – who served in the Jewish Legion in World War I together with Edwin Samuel, the son of the first High Commissioner of Palestine Herbert Samuel – published a two-page glossary of commands in Hebrew.


One of their innovations was the rank of turai (private) since they marched in line formation (tor). And you might not believe this, but the rank samal (sergeant) is an acronym from the words segen maychutz laminyan (non-commissioned officer).


In the Yishuv days, our national poets didn’t just spend their time coming up with nice-sounding rhymes. They were also hard at work inventing new words. For example, Avraham Shlonsky came up with the word gashash for a tracker in the military.


Rosenthal also discussed the biblical origin of a number of words connected with ktzuna (military leadership) in the IDF. The word katzin (officer), for example, can be found in the Book of Isaiah, in the sense of a minister or military leader. Itamar Ben-Avi, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s son, wrote in 1935 in his newspaper, Doar Hayom, that the word officer comes from someone who is a clerk in an office.


Why do you call the symbol on an officer’s uniform a falafel?


“They’re actually oak leaves, but they look like falafel. And I think the term falafel stuck because it was a way of lessening soldiers’ fear of senior officers.”


GIFTED ISRAELI poet Yonatan Ratosh, meanwhile, had only one of his suggestions for new military words actually adopted. His suggestion to use the word haslama for escalation is now commonly used, but all of his other recommendations were not accepted, such as bakara for censor, totkha for artillery, ye’um for terrorism and ahs-khav for hitchhiker – don’t forget, most of the soldiers would hitch rides in those days to get from one place to another.


Tzahalit began forming even before the roar of the cannons employed during the War of Independence quieted. There were many suggestions for new Hebrew words in those days that never took root. It was Mordechai Maklef, the third IDF chief of staff, who suggested calling the military headquarters maon rishmi or ma’ar as an acronym, in an effort to avoid confusion with other headquarters. Even though first IDF chief of staff Yaakov Dori supported adopting usage of this new term, it did not catch on.


Military scientist Yuval Ne’eman suggested that the word bitzron be used to denote security in place of the current bitakhon, and future defense minister Moshe Dayan suggested the word prazon, but prime minister David Ben-Gurion – who was also the defense minister at the time – refused and ordered that everyone use the word bitachon. “In doing so,” explains Rosenthal, “Ben-Gurion determined how crucial of a role the military would play in Israeli society. He wanted to offer the Israeli people a sense of security – bitakhon – using the word that appears in the Bible.


As a result of all the suggestions for new words – especially following 1973’s Yom Kippur War – some people argued that a linguistic failure could lead to military failure. This topic reemerged years later during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the Winograd Commission ruled that it was best to use words that everyone understood.


I was also eager to ask Rosenthal a few questions I’d been wondering about, such as the origin of the phrase root avor in military radio talk, similar to the American ‘Roger over’ to end communication. The word Roger was picked by the British military because it starts with the letter r, which was short for received. In this way in the IDF, soldiers call the international type of truck ‘Dana’ in honor of Israel’s famous singer, Dana International. And, everyone knows why female soldier’s clunky boots are called ‘Golda shoes’: a nod to prime minister Golda Meir, for all her attributes, not being known for her fashion sense.


Foreign minister Moshe Sharett made an official complaint to the Knesset regarding the usage of the foreign word ‘morale,’ since in his opinion, the Hebrew word ruach (spirit) was perfectly good. His complaint was ignored for the most part, although the phrase, ruach halichima (the fighting spirit) is used. This is also abbreviated as rahal, which sounds similar to the word ra’al, (Hebrew for poison) the negative version of ‘mur’al,’ which comes from the same root and is extremely positive.


ANOTHER INTRIGUING word that is commonly used in the IDF is jobnik, which refers to non-combat soldiers. Surprisingly, in the Dictionary of Spoken Hebrew by Netiva Ben-Yehuda and Dahn Ben-Amotz, a jobnik was someone who had been ordered by the Palmah to go out on a combat mission. Rosenthal points out that in many militaries, a jobnik often refers to clerks and secretaries who are mainly responsible for bringing their commanders cups of coffee.


Another outrageous term used in the IDF is bachurila, a portmanteau formed by the words bachura (girl) and ‘gorilla,’ referring to a female combat soldier. “Quite a few male soldiers talk about female soldiers in an overtly sexist way,” complains Rosenthal, “and this phenomenon also extends to the civilian world. For example, Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, who heads the Eli military preparatory program, used this expression in one of his revolting speeches. Using this expression shows the dissidence between official IDF policy, which advocates for the inclusion of women in combat positions, and what is actually happening on the ground.”


So what does all this mean? Even if it seems like Tzahalit is overtaking Hebrew, Rosenthal claims this is an erroneous conclusion, and hopes to correct this perception and calm the public’s fears. “All in all, Tzahalit makes up less than 10% of words in Hebrew,” notes Rosenthal. “And let’s remember that many of the words used in the army come from biblical Hebrew, such as tzava (army), matzbie (military leader), mifaked (commander), gdud (battalion), pluga (military company) and khogayr (enlisted soldier).”


In his book, Speaking in the Language of the Bible – published two-and-a-half years ago by Keter Publishing – Rosenthal claims that “a glass wall has been built between the general public – especially among schoolchildren – and the language of the Bible. Many secular students complain, saying they don’t understand why they need to learn anything about the Bible, while haredi students learn Talmud all day long. This is very disturbing for me. When a people fails to maintain its cultural assets, its destiny is to wither away.”


Is this the only thing that worries you?


“No!” Rosenthal responds, trying to keep his composure. “What bothers me much more are people who are always correcting others in a condescending manner. This just makes people hate the language. I don’t get all bent out of shape when people pronounce words incorrectly. It’s just not that important.


“Although I must say that I’m a bit shocked by how poor Israeli students’ spelling is these days. I think this is a direct result of the absence of spelling tests in school. It’s just appalling.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.