A Lesson in Sexy and Sexist Hebrew Slang

Article excerpt

The modern American man, more than ever, eats quiches, emotes and--like President Barack Obama--prefers conversation to confrontation. But the winds of gender role change have not yet blown into Israel, where the alphamale ethos runs deep. Salty slang words like gever, kli and kusit delineate a public sphere where crude comments about women's looks abound and macho beats out metrosexual.

Gever, literally the Hebrew word for man, is the sine qua non of manhood. "It means a man is tough, maybe a little macho and looks great physically," says Shira Mayzenberg, an editor for the Ha'ir chain of newspapers. "A man who projects authority, knows what he wants and goes forward without hesitation," adds Ruvik Rosenthal, Israel's bestselling author on the subject of slang. Gever and gever gever are compliments used almost exclusively between men. "Ya gever, ma hamatzav?" (Hey bro, what's up?) is a commonplace greeting between acquaintances, accompanied by a manly embrace or clap on the back.

Only occasionally do women address a man as gever--either as a compliment or a rebuke. "Be a gever, capitulate," opposition leader Tzipi Livni, of Kadima taunted in a May speech criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's economic policies. Likud Knesset member Danny Danon later raised the insult in the Knesset committee on the status of women. "What if a Knesset member, minister or prime minister had spoken that way to a woman?" he complained.

Closely related to gever is the word achi (my brother) which, according to Rosenthal, may be the most frequently used Hebrew slang term. Young men address each other saying "Achi, what's up, achi?" and "What do you say, achi, let's go to a movie, achi." Like gever, achi is almost always spoken by one man to another. One popular bumper sticker states: "Kravi zeh hachi, achi" (Combat units are the best, brother). But a cab driver can just as easily roll down his window and shout at a passer-by, "Achi, how do I get to Herzl Boulevard?"

Other slang words that describe men include patish (literally, a hammer) and kli (an instrument or weapon), which is the same as the slang term for the male reproductive organ. Both are highly complimentary and imply that someone is potent, powerful and aggressive. On the other hand, chnun connotes a weak, nerdy guy and comes from the Arabic word chnana, which means snot. "In Yiddish when you want to show contempt for someone you call him a shmarkatz, which means someone with a runny nose. Chnun is the same construction in Arabic," explains Nissan Netzer, a language expert at Bar-Ilan University.

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Slang terms that refer to women usually relate to looks. …