Word of the Day / Shiryon

The word for armor in Hebrew applies both to the metal that protects the bodies of fighters and the hard shell that protects the bodies of some animals.

There's a Hebrew poem (whose title and author I unfortunately can't recall, but any tips are welcome!) that speaks longingly of the peaceful day when the many military words that pepper the language will have only one meaning, and that meaning will not have anything to do with call-up orders or uniforms. In one example, the poet yearns for a time when shiryon means nothing but a turtle shell.

That's because in Hebrew, the connection turtles have with knights in armor and soldiers in tanks is obvious: All of them make use of shiryon, which is the word for armor, both the metal that protects the bodies of fighters and the hard shell that protects the bodies of some animals.

Technically, the same is true in English, in which "armor" is defined in part as "a tough, protective covering, such as the bony scales covering certain animals or the metallic plates on tanks or warships," according to the American Heritage Dictionary. This connection is particularly evident in another animal well-known for its protective covering: the armadillo, whose body and head are encased in an armor of small bony plates, giving rise to the "arm" in its name.

But while that linguistic link may be enshrined in the dictionary, it's not nearly as self-evident in English as it is in Hebrew. In Israel, even small children typically know the word for "armor" because they learn it in the context of turtles, and only later encounter terms like Heil Hashiryon, the Armored Corps of the Israel Defense Forces. (By contrast, how many times –dictionary definition aside – have you found yourself saying in English that a turtle can hide inside its armor?)

Shiryon also has another, seemingly unrelated meaning: to reserve, in the sense of setting aside (lesharyen) a spot or a time slot for someone. 

It is often used in politics to refer to a kind of quota system in which some political parties reserve spots on their tickets for various demographic groups, such as women, Arabs or kibbutz representatives. In this sense, shiryon is used to mean "safeguarding" in a more general, figurative way than that in which armor serves as physical, tangible protection.

Whether the issue is the progress of tanks or that of minority groups, sometimes the turtle gets it right; on occasion at least, slow and steady wins the race.

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.