Though hit-kar-NE-fut, a verb, literally means to turn oneself into a rhinoceros, it really means to follow the herd, especially in the sense of getting swept up in a wave of nationalism.
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The verb is derived from the noun kar’naf (kar-NUF), a 20th-century neologism. Like the English word rhinoceros, which is made up of two Greek words rhino, meaning nose and ceros, meaning horn, the word kar-NUF, coined by Joseph Klausner, is made up of two Hebrew words ke-REN, meaning horn and af, meaning nose.
But enough about kar-NUF (pun intended); what about the verb le-hit-kar-NEF? Well, if you know anything about rhino behavior, you know that rhinos are solitary animals roaming the savannahs of Africa, only meeting their kind for brief sexual encounters when the mood is right.
So how did this word come to be related to herd behavior? Well, the answer, surprisingly, comes from the realm of theater, not zoology. During the early 1960s, Eugene Ionesco’s play "Rhinoceros" was all the rage on stages the world around. In Israel, it was translated and premiered at the Haifa Theater in 1962.
The play tells the story of a small French town in which the people, at first gradually and then en masse, turn into rhinos. At the end, the main character remains the only human in town vowing to go on fighting the rhinos surrounding him. The play is a metaphor for the widespread nationalism that swept across Europe in the mid-20th century.
The verb le-hit-kar-NEF was coined by Asher Naor, Yedioth Ahronoth’s theater critic to describe the on-stage metamorphoses of the play's characters, and the word caught on. But as can be expected, its use was limited as people don’t turn into rhinos off stage.
This changed in 1967, when Dan Almagor wrote in the Ma’ariv daily about a new musical sweeping Broadway: "Cabaret." Almagor described one of the play’s key scenes, in which the music and the characters grow increasingly nationalistic, using the verb mit-kar-NE-fim, adding that that he borrowed a metaphor from Ionesco.
Writers began describing the nationalistic fervor sweeping Israel after the Six-Day War using the new verb. With time, younger Hebrew speakers, who had never heard of Ionesco, began using the word to describe a more general herd mentality.
Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.