Word of the Day / Mossad: It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's THEM

Or maybe it's not. This just means 'institution' in Hebrew, whatever you think that squirrel is up to.

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You probably know that the Mossad is Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, its equivalent of the CIA. But though mossad with a capital “m” refers to the place where the guys and gals in the trench coats work, the word itself can refer to just about any institute, institution or agency.

Writing about Saturday’s shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, in which an Israeli couple and a French woman were killed, Israeli media reported that security at mosdot Yehudiyim – Jewish institutions, with mosdot the plural of mossad – across Belgium has been increased.

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Mosdot memshaltiyim are government institutions, such as the National Insurance Institute, known in Hebrew as the Mossad for Bituah Leumi, and mosdot hinuhiyim – educational institutions, also known as schools. The Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism and History at the University of Haifa is known in Hebrew as Mossad Herzl, and the Technion Research and Development Foundation is the Technion’s mossad for R&D (though “foundation” is usually rendered in Hebrew as keren).

As for the Mossad you probably think of when you hear the word, that's actually just a shortened version of its full name: The Institute (“Hamossad”) for Intelligence and Special Operations. Like the intentionally vague insider epithet “the Office” for an espionage agency (at least in spy novels), or like a kid with a common last name whose parents named her Antigone Euripedes but is universally known as “Jones,” the Mossad has retained its generic name and effectively lost the qualifiers that are meant to spell out just what kind of institution the spy agency is.

But maybe that’s all part of the plot. After all, if one were to believe conspiracy theories that have become popular in various Arab countries, "The Institution" had a role to play in 2010 shark attacks in Egypt, dispatched a kestrel to spy on Turkey (the bird underwent intensive medical examination before being released last year), and possibly even unleashed the 14-member squirrel spy ring arrested by Iran in 2007.

There was also the griffon vulture detained by Saudi Arabia in 2011, but that may just have been because the authorities over there overheard an overeager agent of one mossad or another announcing that the eagle had landed

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.