Word of the Day / Ken, Ken; Lo, Lo: Just Make a Decision, Already

Most Israelis just want an answer one way or the other, but don’t expect those options from a mob boss, if Israel’s answer to ‘The Sopranos’ is any guide.

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Let’s say I’m trying to sell my couch and my neighbor says he might be interested but won’t give me a straight answer. “So, do you want it?” I might ask. “Ken, ken; lo, lo.”

Literally, that means “yes, yes; no, no,” but what I’m trying to get across is: If your answer is yes, that’s cool, and if not, not. Both options, I’m saying, are fine with me; you just need to let me know one way or the other.

The phrase ken, ken; lo, lo has appeared in a mutated form on “Haborer” (“The Arbitrator”), Israel’s answer to “The Sopranos,” as in a 2009 episode in which the mobster known as Yigal the Nazi gives his victim a choice: “Decide for yourself. ‘Ken, ken; ken, ken,’ like I always say.” In other words, you can do it my way or you can do it my way.

It also shows up in more august forums, like an August 2012 meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, at which Justice Ministry attorney Rani Neubauer is on record using the original phrase in a description of take-it-or-leave-it contracts.

“For instance, if I want… to get checking-account services, I go to the bank, the bank offers me a standard contract, and my options are basically to say, ‘I’ll sign it, ken – ken, lo – lo,” Neubauer said at the meeting. “If I want this specific type of service, I generally have to sign this kind of contract, and the conditions are generally not subject to bargaining.”

The phrase may be part of contemporary parlance, but the words themselves are hardly of recent vintage. Perhaps the most well-known biblical use of the word lo is in the 10 commandments; in Hebrew, all five of the “Thou shalt not's" begin with lo.

And ken appears in the Bible more than 500 times – but is never used in its most common sense today, to mean “yes,” writes biblical Hebrew expert Yaakov Etsion. Rather, he writes, ken is generally used in the Bible to mean “thus” or “so,” as in Genesis 6:22: “Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so [ken] did he.”

Sometimes it means “true” or “correct,” as in Numbers 27:7: “The daughters of Zelophehad speak right [kendovrot]: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.” Etsion suggests that the use of ken as the opposite of “no” may have begun as an abbreviated version of ken hadavar, which means “that is so” and appears in the Mishna.

Got all that? Ken, ken; ken, ken, like I always say.

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.

Take it or leave it. Credit: Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us, 1897

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