Word of the Day / Stam

With a meaning that means 'no meaning,' stam is the perfect expression to show how nonchalant you are.

Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova

“Stam” (STAHM) can mean “just,” in the sense of a qualifier that minimizes whatever comes next, like when you call up someone you haven’t spoken to in a while and you know the person is probably wondering if you have some ulterior motive so you start off by saying “I just called to say hi.”

Now imagine you could use that minimizing “just” as a stand-alone sentence in spoken English, and you might get a feel for the other way “stam” is used – to mean either “no reason” or “just kidding.”

When unadorned by surrounding words, the “no reason” stam is usually pronounced the same way as it is when placed in a longer sentence to mean “just.” If you ask someone a question out of the blue – “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” let’s say – your co-conversationalist might well ask why you want to know. If there’s no particular reason, or at least no reason you want to share, Hebrew speakers can be expected to shrug their shoulders and answer with a nonchalant “stam.”

But the “just kidding” stam usually sounds a bit different. Let’s say your Israeli colleague wants to pull your leg. When you get into the office your coworker, ever a kidder, announces that the computer system is down and no one will be able to do any work until the tech people fix it. He watches as you get excited (“Yes! I get to play hooky without having to take a sick day!”) or upset (“Now I’ll have to stay longer to finish the project I need to get done today!”), and then breaks in to let you know it was all a joke. The word he reaches for could well be “stam,” but in this context the “a” sound is usually drawn out, sounding something like “Staaaaaaaaaahm!”

And then there’s a “sofer stam.” The “stam” in this case is actually an acronym referring to what the scribe writes: Torah scrolls as well as tefillin and mezuzot, the ritual objects made sacred by virtue of the words inscribed on the parchment they contain.

An alternative theory is that the term is a derogatory one initiated by the radical anti-phylacteries movement active in 15th-century Galicia to mean “just a scribe.” Staaaaaaaaaahm!

Sofer stam.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum