Little Israeli kids, curious about the world around them but lacking the vocabulary to express what they see, can sometimes be seen sticking out their little Bamba-and-snot-encrusted fingers and asking the perennial question: “Mah zeh?”
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When used as a stand-alone interrogatory, the phrase means “What’s that?” Add another word or phrase and it can turn into “What is,” as in “Mah zeh Bamba?” But while that’s a proper use of the phrase, you won’t ever actually hear an Israeli child asking what Bamba is, since it is not uncommon for one of a sabra baby’s first foods to be the Cheez Doodles-like crumbly peanut snack.
As those kids grow up, “mah zeh” transforms from question to two-word intensifier. Sure, it still indicates a query if there’s a question mark at the end of the sentence, but it’s at least as likely to be used as a description of something super-fun (“mah zeh keifi”), uber-cool (“mah zeh magniv”) or totally amazing (“mah zeh madhim”) as it is to signal lack of knowledge.
I must have subconsciously assumed that this colloquial use of the phrase wouldn’t show up in my own kids’ vocabulary until they were older, maybe preteens. But the other day I overheard my 5-year-old daughter pretending to drive a car in the playground and announcing, apparently under the influence of her fellow kindergartners, that she was driving “mah zeh mah zeh mah zeh mah zeh maher,” or really really really really fast. Good thing we’ve got a few more years before she becomes eligible for a driver’s license.