Word of the Day Milhama: Sometimes War Is Just a Game

Combat is a serious matter. When it’s not, the pronunciation changes.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

The history of Israel is, to a large extent, the history of a succession of wars. The Hebrew word for “war,” milhama (meel-kha-MA), makes an appearance in Genesis: “And there went out the king of Sodom, and the king of Gomorrah, and the king of Admah, and the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela--the same is Zoar; and they set the battle [milhama] in array against them in the vale of Siddim” (14:8).

Israelis know all too well that war is serious business. Perhaps that’s why when War is just something to do to pass the time, its name sounds just a little bit different.

Like most Hebrew words, milhama is properly pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable -- at least when it’s referring to actual war. (This emphasis at the end of a word is considered Israeli or Sephardi pronunciation, as opposed to the more Yiddishy, Ashkenazi pronunciation that is prevalent in the United States and is a component of what makes an American accent in Hebrew sound so different from an Israeli one.)

When Israelis are referring to the children’s card game War, on the other hand, they often distinguish between war and War by changing the emphasis to the first syllable when talking about the game. The prospect of meel-kha-MA (mixed with the specter of boredom) might be the reason you put a deck of cards into the bomb shelter in the first place. But once you’re there, the game in which you attempt to acquire all the cards while facing off against another player or two is not war (or at least not the kind that involves guns) but MEEL-kha-ma.

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.

War is hell, except when pronounced MEEL-kha-ma.Credit: Nir Kafri

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