'Balyan' used mean 'old hag,' and now means 'party animal.'
'Balyan' used mean 'old hag,' and now means 'party animal.' There is a strange logic in how this happened. Photo by Michal Fattal
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In modern Hebrew argot, the word bal-YAN is either a noun meaning “partygoer,” as in a person at a club, bar, or party, or an adjective meaning “person who goes out often and likes to party.”

Yet bizarrely enough, it is etymologically related to the Hebrew phrase for “old hag” - zkena bala.

The root B-L-H, common to Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, means “to become worn with use” as for example in this passage in Joshua 9:13: “...and these our clothes and our sandals are worn out (balu) because of the very long journey."

From this meaning, a secondary meaning arose in the form of the verb levalot - “to consume”.

What does this consumption have to do with parties? Well, in the 20th century, the phrase “levalot zman” entered use, meaning “to consume time” - usually with the negative connotation of wasting time. An early example of this appears in an article in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s newspaper HaHashkafa in 1908, on the rising trend of women exercising in Europe: “Most of them agree that ‘sport’ isn’t just a waste of time but also contributes to one’s health.”

Over time, the phrase gained a more positive connotation, closer in meaning to “passing time.” During the 1930s this phrase had become so common that people hardly ever heard the word levalot without being followed by zman, so out of expedience people just dropped it all together.

So during the 1930s and 1940s levalot became more and more common, until people forgot that the word’s original meaning. In the minds of the young Israelis of the then newly established State of Israel, levalot was simply the word for going out.

Decades later in the mid-1980s journalist, writer and peace activist Uri Avnery had the clever idea of creating the noun balyan (and its female counterpart balyanit) out of the now common verb. People have been using the word ever since.