Word of the Day: Balagan

This word describes everything from the traffic you're stuck in to your friend's mess of an outfit to Israel's most recent elections.

David Sarna Galdi.
David Sarna Galdi
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Mothers often tell their kids to clean up the 'balagan' they made.
Mothers often tell their kids to clean up the 'balagan' they made.Credit: Eran Wolkowski
David Sarna Galdi.
David Sarna Galdi

A "balagan" is what you have in your room. A "balagan" is what's going on between you and your girlfriend. A "balagan" is also often the state of Israeli politics. In short, a "balagan" is a mess.

The noun "balagan," ingrained in the average Israeli's daily vocabulary, is actually borrowed from Russian – in which it means the same thing – but derives from the name for traveling-puppet-show wagons common to fairs in days of yore.

Digging even deeper, the word's true origin is Persian ("balchan") from which it made its way across the borders of Turkey to Russia and subsequently to several other languages, like Hebrew and Lithuanian (which uses "balaganas").

"Balagan," along with other terms and linguistic traits, made its way to Israel during the First Aliyah (1882-1903), when many Zionist Russian immigrants, including Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, settled in Mandatory Palestine.

Modern-day immigrants and visitors to Israel may still experience culture shock upon arrival. Feel free to use "balagan" to describe anything from the traffic you're stuck in to your friend's hot mess of an outfit to Israel's most recent elections.

Or get creative and attach any number of adjectives at the end: "balagan gadol" ("big mess"), "balagan atomi" ("atomic mess"), or "balagan expresionisti amerikani mufshat " ("American Abstract Expressionist mess") -- perhaps to describe the Jackson Pollock housed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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