A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Linguistic Notes I: Skolnik on "Hebrew Slang"

Language warning: this post on Arabic slang in Hebrew includes strong NSFW language some readers will find offensive. Please proceed only if very strong language (though in a scholarly context) does not offend.

During my slow blogging while recovering from surgery I've let a lot of bloggable material go by. Tonight I'll comment on a couple of linguistic topics.

The first is a piece by Fred Skolnik, Editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica, at the Ilanot Review, entitled simply "Hebrew Slang." It deals with the multiple origins of slang in Modern Israeli Hebrew (Hebrew itself, Yiddish, Arabic, English, Russian, etc.). My own knowledge of Hebrew is far too rudimentary to comment linguistically (though others have done so, particularly on  the role of Russian slang in Israeli Hebrew). I am, however, going to cite his comments on Arabic slang in  Hebrew, a subject of interest to me. Any Arabist spending time among Hebrew speakers (at least outside  a synagogue, and most especially in an Army camp) will have noted many Arabic cusswords in Hebrew.

It's impossible to discuss the subject without quoting Skolnik and discussing his comments, which requires one of my rare Not Safe for Work language warnings. The easily offended should proceed at their own risk. I am not kidding here. It does, however, allow me to comment in a normally taboo area.

Skolnik writes:
Chronologically, it may be said that the early settlers brought the Yiddish with them from Eastern Europe, picked up the Arabic from the Arabs here, and got the English first from the British during the Mandate period and then from the Americans through their films (which furnished the ubiquitous “happy end” – “heppy end” – of Hebrew speech, the -ing getting lost somewhere between Hollywood and Tel Aviv) and other cultural imports. Sometimes, too, Israelis were too provincial, or ignorant, to recognize the force of the foreign words they adopted. Kus (rhymes with puss) for cunt, adopted from the Arabic, is not only used in the street but heard regularly in the sitcoms and soap operas, not to mention the less dignified talk shows, and now we have kus’-eet too, referring to a woman as such, even affectionately, as has occurred with the word nigger (or “nigga”) among American blacks. In actual fact, despite the Arabic origin of the Hebrew word, it is precisely the English “cunt” or “pussy” that is the real inspiration, as Arabs do not habitually talk about women the way Westerners do. Also “fuck,” which becomes fack (rhymes with sock), is regularly exclaimed without any real sense of what is being said, though focking is perceived as somewhat strong even if one does not grasp the full force or resonance of the word. At the same time, a word like manyak with its independent Arabic (cocksucker) and English (maniac) origins became totally confused in Hebrew speech and has been used in both senses, sometimes with the (inexplicable) force that the British “bloody” had fifty years ago and therefore not heard in polite society, and sometimes with far less sting for someone acting in a crazy or outrageous way. I would guess that the word was first used in the Arabic sense by Oriental Jews and then picked up by Ashkenazi Jews in the mistaken belief that it derived from the English word.
The supposed conflation in Hebrew between relatively mild English "maniac" and obscene Arabic manyak is intriguing, though I can't testify  to the Hebrew usage. Translating manyak as "cocksucker" is at best arguable,  Manyak (منيك) is a dialectal variant of the more standard manyuk, (منيوك), which literally translates as "fucked," and is indeed used to refer to a homosexual taking the passive role, while the feminine form manyuka is one of Arabic's several words for "whore," also giving rise to ibn manyuka (son of a whore) addressed to males. Though Skolnik's article doesn't seem to accept comment, the linguistics blog Language Hat linked to the post and has a vigorous comments thread now up to 34, many dealing with the manyak/maniac conflation.

I also have to take exception, despite it involving even more offensive language, to Skolnik's comment:
In actual fact, despite the Arabic origin of the Hebrew word, it is precisely the English “cunt” or “pussy” that is the real inspiration, as Arabs do not habitually talk about women the way Westerners do.
This royally misses the point. The fact that "Arabs do not habitually talk that way" means that when they do, watch out. Kuss ummak, or in Palestinian and Hebrew pronunciation, Kuss immak (كس أمك) and its variants are the strongest Arabic obscenity, at least in general use. (I warned you the language was strong.)  If "your mother's cunt" is  coarse and offensive in English, it is vastly more so in Arabic, intentionally so, and makes "fuck you" sound tame and limp, though it fills a similar semantic role. But it is a native Arabic usage of long standing, and intended to be as obscene a possible. (Hebrew has other equivalents to "fuck you," including the purely [or impurely?] Hebrew lech li-hizdayen, also noted by Skolnik, which is literally "go fuck yourself.") (Hizdayen and its cognates are another story, and produced a wondrously funny Menachem Begin anecdote from Amos Oz, but that's a tale for another day.)

The taboo doesn't originate in English, as Skolnik suggests, and while it certainly is equivalent  to "cunt" and stronger than "pussy," (speaking in American terms; Brits use the "c-word" more liberally and apply it to males), it's a Classical Arabic (and I think is used in the 1001 Nights though I can't find it just now, though I think etymologically Persian in origin) word. Skolnik is way off base here. Patriarchal societies consider attacking one's mother far more offensive than attacking the individual. Both Spanish (Iberian and American, though using multiple different verbs) and Chinese consider "Fuck your Mother" the standard insult, as Arabic does with the Kuss insults. (It has even gotten to the point where some Arabs simply use Kuss umm as equivalent to English "fuck," leading to phrases like Kuss umm al-hukuma, essentially "Fuck the Government," though the government presumably lacks a vagina.) If that isn't intense enough, other female relatives starting with your sister, grandmother, etc. can be used for escalation. But at least given the weakening of taboos and ubiquity of "fuck" in English media, kuss ummak is far more offensive. Hebrew has, if anything, defined the term down from its Arabic offensiveness. (The American "motherfucker," originally black, has also become common if  taboo, and is somewhere in the same semantic register.)

Actress Natalie Portman once used Kuss immak  on US TV, calling it "a curse word that is also humorous. That is priceless." Israelis may find it humorous. (And "vagina" is a euphemism, but it was TV.) Arabs will find it fighting words.


John Cowan said...

The Spanish of NYC can use any of several different verbs with su madre to form an obscene insult: coger, chingar, joder, etc., or even with no verb at all. Consequently, when you do need to refer to someone's mother, it is polite (and safer) to say su señora madre. In English, this becomes your lady mother, which sounds odd, to say the least, to non-Hispanics.

There's a great story from another Language Hat posting about Romanian cursing: "At a company meeting a woman said in a rage; ‘What the devil, my prick, do you want?’ After the woman had calmed down she apologized for the word ‘devil.’ The people in the room laughed. Then the woman asked, offended: ‘Why, my cunt, are you laughing?’"

Michael Collins Dunn said...