Word of the Day / Ma Pitom

Think this phrase has anything to do with its literal translation? No way. But it's often useful to find out what the heck is going on.

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If you use Facebook, you've probably noticed some of your friends have been changing their profile pictures to celebrities whom they supposedly resemble.  Maybe you've even done so yourself. Before explaining that it's Doppelganger Week on the social media site, a Hebrew article on the meme asks: "Ma pitom Facebook friends are replacing their pictures with those of their doubles?"

Ma pitom literally means "what suddenly." Sometimes, those words can be best translated as "what the heck," as in, "What the heck, suddenly my Facebook friends think they look like Arnold Schwarzenegger?" In this context, the phrase is used to indicate something unexpected and can sometimes be rendered as "why on earth" or "what do you mean," as in a post by an Israeli life coach attempting to take down a recalcitrant approach she describes as "Ma pitom forgive you?" – "What do you mean I should forgive you?"

Other times, ma pitom can mean "of course not" or "no way." This can be intoned derisively but seriously, as in an op-ed about how American Jews don't view immigration to Israel as a priority, headlined "Aliyah? Ma pitom." Or it can be sarcastic, as on a Hebrew Facebook page that has received 15,208 likes and goes by the rather unwieldy name "Did I wake you up? Ma pitom, who sleeps at 4 A.M.?"

"Ma Pitom" was also the name of a children's television show that first aired in the late 1970s and featured an animated cactus called Kishkashta.

When Israel decided to use another animated cactus that resembled Kishkashta as its mascot in the London Olympics, though, Israel's educational television channel, which produced the show, filed a complaint that eventually led to the second cartoon's de-mascotization. The essence of the complaint, of course, was "Ma pitom, that's our prickly pear!"

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, click here.  

Educational Television character Kishkashta.Credit: Oren Golan

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