Word of the Day Misken

Whether you are the victim of a serious injustice or merely a petty inconvenience, this word allows your friends to bestow either genuine sympathy or tongue-in-cheek chiding.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

Wisdom is better than strength, Ecclesiastes tells us, yet "the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard" (9:16).

The word used here for "poor" is misken (mees-KEN), which is related to the Akkadian muskenu, Aramaic misken and Arabic miskin, and refers to someone who is literally impoverished.

In today's Hebrew, though, misken usually refers to someone in an unfortunate or pitiable situation in a broader sense than that reflected by poverty alone. In this figurative sense, it is similar to "poor" in English phrases like "you poor guy." (Ani is the word generally used to describe someone who lives below the kav ha'oni, or poverty line.)

An article on a Hebrew parenting website advises parents not to view their children as miskenim –not to see them as pathetic or feel bad for them over every small thing that goes wrong for them, like having a teacher scold them at school – because that can infantilize them and make them think they are incapable of overcoming even small obstacles.

If one were to find out that an acquaintance was in a terrible car accident or contracted a terminal illness, "Oy," the acquaintance might say. "Mamash [really] misken!" In that context, it's kind of like saying "That really sucks," except that the adjective refers to a person who's in a sucky situation rather than the situation itself.

The word often connotes some degree of condescension, hierarchy or distance, which is why, somewhat paradoxically, a good friend would be more likely to use the word in a less serious situation.

It is sometimes used casually or jokingly. If Noa were to complain bitterly to Tamar about how her roommate had finished off the last of the Ben & Jerry's and now there was only standard Israeli ice cream left in the freezer, Tamar might offer the faux commiseration of "Eizeh miskena"– "You're so misken [in the feminine]." In this context, it's similar to the figurative, sarcastic sense of "Oh, you poor girl," used here as a way of letting her know that actually, she's not really in such a bad situation after all.

Then again, a more patient friend might commiserate about minor annoyances, like missing a bus, with the same word spoken in a different tone –"Oy, miskena!" – as a sincere and compassionate English speaker might say "You poor thing!" and mean it.

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.

Sometimes 'you poor thing' can be tossed around sarcastically in Hebrew; in the case of this little boy, it might ring true.Credit: Bruno Amadio

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