Word of the Day / Gadol: Great Bowels, Grandma

Gadol can function as a noun meaning a great person, in the sense of being an intellectual giant, but it also means many other things.

Shoshana Kordova
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Left to right: The Belzer Rabbi, Rabbi Eliashiv (z"l), Rabbi Shteinman - three of the greatest rabbis of our age.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Shoshana Kordova

The simplest meaning of gadol (ga-DOHL) is "big," as in the unexpectedly large size of the Big Bad Wolf's ears, eyes and mouth, as remarked upon by Little Red Riding Hood when she somewhat inexplicably confuses the wolf with her grandmother. But it can mean quite a few other things besides, including "older," "great" and, in the plural, "bowel movement."

Israelis regularly use gadol to refer to age, even though to English speakers used to having separate words for "bigger" and "older," such sentences might sound like "He's one year bigger than me" or "She's the biggest one in the class."

Gadolcan also mean "great," as in the Macedonian leader Alexander Hagadol or, rather more colloquially, as a synonym for exclamatory approbation similar to "cool," "amazing" or "awesome."

"Oh my God, you were actually at the concert where Justin Bieber collapsed on stage?" a star-struck tween might ask her friend. "Gadol!"

Gadol can also function as a noun meaning a great person, in the sense of being, say, an intellectual giant. In the religious world, a highly revered rabbi seen as possessing one of the greatest minds of the era may be described as a gadol hador, a giant (or "great one") of his generation. Great rabbis of the past and present are known collectively as gedolim (the plural of gadol).

But oddly enough, it is precisely in the religious world – more specifically the ultra-Orthodox one – that gedolim (sometimes pronounced gedoylim, as in the Yiddish) also means something at the other end of the spectrum from revered leaders.

While most Israeli parents talk about peepee or kaki when addressing their young children about toilet needs, that is considered too indelicate a reference to bodily excretions in the Haredi world. Instead, gedolim is the accepted euphemism for a bowel movement (much like "No. 2" in English), as distinguished from ketanim ("small ones"), which refers to urination.

Maybe what the varying words for gadol are trying to tell us is that just because you make it big doesn't mean your big ones don't stink.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.