Word of the Day Hamevin Yavin

Whether out of secrecy, censorship or just a sense of exclusivity, this phrase is both a wink to those who get it and a shrug to those who don't.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

So there's this cartoon about a school that lost all its student records because one of its students had a rather improbable punctuation-filled name that included a computer command to wipe the system. The Israeli website that reposted the cartoon prefaced it by saying, in Hebrew, "A small joke about security– vehamevin yavin."

Hamevin yavin (ha-may-VEEN ya-VEEN), which is sometimes preceded by ve, meaning "and," literally means "whoever understands will understand," or as the former "decider" George W. Bush might say, "the understander will understand."

The phrase has also been used by classical rabbinical exegetes such as Nahmanides, for example, to allude to an esoteric kabbalistic concept, and continues to be employed in modern Hebrew.

The phrase can be used to refer to specific people or incidents without citing them by name or, as in the cartoon example, can clue the listener or reader in to the assumption that the statement (or joke) is targeted to a specific subset of the population. Like any in-group reference, this can be a little condescending, effectively telling everyone: "I'm not going to say any more about it. If you get it, you get it and if it's over your head then you're not meant to understand it anyway."

Hamevin yavincan have the effect of an obvious wink to a target audience, which in some cases may be widely expected to understand the reference; it's just that the writer or speaker feels unable to spell it out for whatever reason. In modern usage, that reason can be military censorship or even preventative self-censorship. For instance, in December 2011 the daily newspaper Israel Hayom ran an entire article about Israel's preparations for a possible attack on Iran without once mentioning the name of the country.

The newspaper reported that the Israel Defense Forces was establishing a new command that would be directly answerable to the chief of staff and responsible for "special operations in distant theaters," an implied reference to Iran. The article didn't stop at euphemism, though, topping it off with a headline that was essentially one big wink: "Vehamevin yavin? IDF setting up command for distant operations."

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.

Hogwarts students simply refer to him as 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.' Those who know, know. If you're not one of the billion readers of Harry Potter, you won't.Credit: Warner Bros

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