Word of the Day / Matos: Finding a Word for 'Jet' in Hebrew

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Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Hebrew has two words for airplane - avi-RON and ma-TOS, though the former is mostly used by children and the latter is much more common.

Aviron came first. It was coined by Itamar Ben-Avi, who is among the first speakers of modern Hebrew; the word first appeared in print in an article on new advances in the art of aviation in far-away England.

The article was published in 1908 in Hahashkafa, the newspaper edited by Ben-Avi's father, the Hebrew reviver Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

This word replaced the more cumbersome sfi-NAT a-VIR (“air ship”), a term first used by Nahum Sokolow, a pioneer of Hebrew-language journalism.

Ben-Yehuda the younger coined the word “aviron” based on the word a-VIR (“air”).

Avir is adopted from the Greek word “aer” and first appears in the Talmud. He chose the word because it sounded like the French word for airplane, “avion.” That French word had been coined by French aviation pioneer Clément Ader, based on the Latin word for bird, “avis.”

The word “aviron” was used by the Hebrew newspapers when the first-ever plane, piloted by a Frenchman, landed in the Yishuv (pre-state Israel). This happened on Christmas Day, 1913, in a field near Tel Aviv.

A week later, on New Year’s Eve, another French pilot landed in Jerusalem, causing great excitement. The next day, thousands of Jerusalemites went to watch the plane take off from a field outside the city.

In 1928, the great Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik suggested to fellow members of the Hebrew Language Committee that the verb “af” (“fly”), while suitable for the flight of birds, was not appropriate for the flight of planes. He suggested instead the verb “tus” (pronounced toos).

For the same reason, he suggested that the word aviron be replaced by “matos.”

The verb tus appears once in the book of Job (though spelled differently - the spelling used by Bialik appears later in the Talmud): “They are passed away as the swift ships; as the vulture that swoopeth on the prey.” (9:26).

Bialik’s word “matos” was adopted immediately and competed with Ben Avi’s “aviron” over the next decade, until 1948, when the Israel Air Force and national airline El Al were established. Both organizations used “matos,” and the use of the word “aviron” sharply declined.

It would have probably disappeared altogether were it not for a popular children's song, “Come Down to Us Airplane,” written by nursery teacher Chinga Simler, which every child growing up in Israel knows. “Come down to us airplane / Take us up to the sky / We will rise to the tops of trees / And will be like birds.”

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