Word of the Day Balagan

You think chaotic mess may be quintessentially Israeli, but think of Turkish balconies.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

I readily admit it: I am a full-fledged balaganistit – a messy person or, if you want to be unnecessarily rude about it, a slob.

When my oldest daughter was 3 months old and I was heading back to work, at first I used to apologize to the babysitter for the balagan (BA-la-gan: mess, disorder) in the house. She always seemed to show up just before I got a chance to make it look like perhaps we might not have been burgled five minutes before.

I guess I was deluding myself into thinking that if I could only find a big enough closet to dump everything into before she next arrived, she wouldn't realize that balagan was actually my natural state. I quickly realized there was no point in keeping up the pretense, though, and by the third or fourth time the babysitter came, neither of us was commenting on the piles of newspapers, toys, clothes and dirty dishes scattered across just about every surface.

Sure, English has words like "mess" and "messy." But they don't fully capture the essence of balagan, which goes way beyond tidiness and its opposite.

Balagan can mean confusion and chaos; it can be pluralized (balaganim) to mean problems or difficulties; and though it has a four-letter root rather than the standard three letters, it can be turned into an adjective (mevulgan, meaning messy or disordered) or a verb (bilgen, meaning he created a balagan).

Microbiologist Ehud Gazit, a former vice president of research and development at Tel Aviv University, went as far as to say, in a Ynet interview in 2009, that creativity and balaganistiyut are the two-pronged hallmark of the Israeli entrepreneur.

Yet for all its Israeliness, balagan does not have its roots in the Hebrew language.

Rather, it has to do with the medieval popular entertainment form of commedia dell'arte, which presumably involved more of a balagan than did various forms of highbrow culture.

Balagan comes from the Farsi word balakhaana, according to the Even Shoshan dictionary, meaning "external room," "upper room" or "balcony." The word made its way to the Turkish and from there to the Russian, where a wooden balagan became not just a storehouse or attic but a venue for commedia dell'arte starting in the 18th century, according to Hebrew language maven Rubik Rosenthal.

Balagan came to refer to the type of theater itself, as reflected in a 1993 book by J. Douglas Clayton called "Pierrot in Petrograd: Commedia dell'Arte / Balagan in Twentieth-Century Russian Theatre and Drama." And a flyer from the Balagan circus troupe describes balagan as a Russian word meaning "marketplace circus."

Thus did the word come to connote something that was joyful, colorful and, ultimately, disorderly, writes Rosenthal. He adds that balagan can also be found in languages including Polish, Bulgarian and Croatian, meaning either the room itself or, as in the Hebrew, the disorder it barely contains.

The word balagan, then, has its roots in an unruly mishmash of cultures and languages, jutting out like the haphazard assortment of stuff in my home that I no longer apologize to babysitters for. And that sounds just right.


On a personal note, I will be going on leave starting next week and this will be my last column for the next several months. But don't worry, several of my colleagues will be filling in, so you'll still be able to satisfy your Word of the Day fix.

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.

Is this a mess or a Croatian balcony?Credit: Laura Schultz via Mabels Labels
A peddler in Tel Aviv: If you can find what you want in that balagan of his cart, more power to you. Credit: AP

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