Word of the Day Letzaftzef

Given Israelis' affinity for tooting their own horns, it may be no surprise that when they thumb their noses at someone, they reach for the word for honking.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Newcomers to Israel who are used to civility on the roads may be surprised by just how quick local drivers are to honk (letzaftzef, pronounced le-tzahf-TZEF) their horns. All too many of them beep away the very moment the light turns green, even if there's a holdup the drivers in front can do nothing about.

Given Israelis' affinity for tooting their own horns, perhaps it ought to be no surprise that when they thumb their noses at someone, they reach for the word tziftzuf, or honking, just as they reach for the center of the steering wheel instead of waiting that extra milisecond.

An Israeli who wants to show his contempt for what some politician is saying on TV might announce "Ani metzaftzef alav!" – literally, "I honk (or beep, chirp or wheeze) at him!"

Your computer might letzaftzef alarmingly for no discernible reason, a child might letzaftzef noisily during an asthma attack and, more colloquially, Syrian President Bashar Assad can, in the words of a Maariv article from last year, letzaftzef at a cease-fire deal he doesn't want to uphold.

The word can be found in the Bible, specifically in the book of Isaiah: "And brought down thou shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust; and thy voice shall be as of a ghost out of the ground, and thy speech shall chirp (tetzaftzef) out of the dust" (29:4).

Perhaps the closest ancient example to the usage of tziftzuf to mean scoffing at, deriding, dismissing or speaking out in objection can be found in an earlier chapter of Isaiah, in which the prophet says God will punish "the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria," who boasted not only of his actions but of the lack of resistance to them, the absence of tziftzuf:

"[B]y the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am prudent; in that I have removed the bounds of the peoples, and have robbed their treasures, and have brought down as one mighty the inhabitants; And my hand hath found as a nest the riches of the peoples; and as one gathereth eggs that are forsaken, have I gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved the wing, or that opened the mouth, or chirped (potzeh peh umetzaftzef)" (10:12-14).

In other words, no one made a peep, much less thumbed his honker at the king.

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.

In Israel, the same word can be used to honk at a driver or thumb your nose at someone.Credit: Richard Wheeler

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