Word of the Day / Adish: That See-no-evil State of Mind

How the Hebrew revival expropriated an ancient word apparently meaning 'walk on by' to mean 'don't give a hoot'.

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With all the rockets flying and bombs exploding and war in the air, it is hard to believe that many Israelis, especially the young, can remain unmoved by the news and go on with their daily lives. Well, they are out there, and the adjective used in Hebrew to characterize this yawny apathy is a-DEESH.

So if you aren’t indifferent to the etymology of this word, read on.

The root of adish is D-W-SH, which in Biblical Hebrew meant "to tread" (on land), and more specifically "to thresh" (as in stomp on wheat). "Neither did he leave of the people to Jehoahaz but fifty horsemen, and ten chariots, and ten thousand footmen; for the king of Syria had destroyed them, and had made them like the dust by threshing" (2 Kings 13:7).

By the time of the Talmud, this word gained a more metaphoric use. There we find the root conjugated as adish. Now, according to my reading of the text, that would mean: “Happy is he who hears [himself abused] and treads on, for he will escape a hundred evils” (Sanhedrin 7a).

The great Talmudic scholar Marcus Jastrow translated that "treads on" as "doesn’t care," which is a less literal translation than my own. At any rate, it was this Talmudic passage that drove Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, reviver of the Hebrew language, to create the modern Hebrew word adish.

As Ben-Yehuda wrote in his newspaper HaOr in December 8, 1892: “The term which the French translated as indifférent and the German as gleichgültig and is the opposite of care, meaning someone who doesn’t care about a thing, cannot be translated into Hebrew by any of the known or famous words."

As Hebrew clearly needed a word for this dulled frame of mind, Ben-Yehuda chose adish. He ends his article by suggesting a word for "indifference" - adishut.

From Ben-Yehuda, the word spread through the small community of Hebrew speakers and adishut and adish are used to this very day for "I don't care," "it's all one to me" and "Air raid siren? What siren? Oh, that one. Please pass the salt."