Word of the Day / Sakum: The Spork That Wasn't

An early reference to the Hebrew acronym for cutlery, made in a letter by a new recruit to the Israeli army in 1948, carries eerily modern resonance.

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The English hybrid word “spork,” that combination of spoon, fork and sometimes knife that has been marketed as the perfect camping cutlery, has a modern feel to it. One of its fans has even granted it an Urban Dictionary entry rather hyperbolically lauding the significance of its many capabilities: “And on the 8th day, God decided that Adam and Eve needed a multipurpose silverware item. Thus, the spork, a combination of the pronged wrath of the fork and the carrying capacity of the spoon.”

British food writer Bee Wilson writes that the English word was first recorded in a dictionary back in 1909 and the first patent for a spork – “what theorists of technology call a ‘joined’ tool,” like a pencil with an eraser on the end, as she puts it – was issued in 1970.

A 2010 Maariv article in Hebrew on gadgets for hikers referred to the spork, in English letters, as, well, a “spork,” which it described as a “combination of a knife, fork and spoon.”

It makes some sense to borrow the English, not because there is no Hebrew word that combines various forms of flatware but because a Hebrew mashup of all those eating utensils already exists – and it is the standard word for “cutlery,” in use since at least 1948, the year of the birth of the Jewish state.

That acronym is sakum, which stands for sakin, kaf umazleg, “knife, spoon and fork.” Like “spork,” it doesn’t make the distinction between different kinds of spoons, with kaf, a soup spoon, tablespoon or serving spoon – basically a big spoon – standing in for both itself and its little sibling, the kapit, or teaspoon.

The word sakum is used in a letter from a soldier published in the July 8, 1948, issue of the now-defunct Hebrew newspaper Hatzofeh, an issue whose lead headline, sounding almost as though it might have been written today, reads: “Security Council approves call for sides to agree to truce extension.”

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Describing what happens when he gets called up to carry out his military service, the soldier writes that as he heads toward the army intake base, he feels an increasingly greater distance between himself and the people he passes. Writing in the third person, he says: “He accepted upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of Israel, and he will put his entire selfhood at its service.”

Then he goes into the nitty-gritty of arriving at the base. “A public address system at the top of a pole issues endless instructions and announcements to those arriving at the base,” he writes. “Every man finds a private corner within this public space. Equipment for the temporary living quarters has already been received, and those living in tents and huts meet in the procession of plates and sakum as they head toward the meal.”

The anonymous soldier, his tale as resonant and familiar as ever, lets us know not just that spoons, forks and knives were linguistically lumped together at least as far back as 1948, but also that a fear of security-breaching troops was imprinted on the army long before concerns arose about how much information soldiers would share on WhatsApp. “Every once in a while, they get a [military] company together and move them ‘over there,’” he writes. “The passengers sit on the bus and don’t know where it will take them and where they are headed, because that is a military secret.”

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.