My 4-year-old daughter is going to be a firefighter this Purim, and when asked what she’s dressing up as, she responds with the Hebrew word for “fireman”: kabai (ka-BAI, to rhyme with Best Buy), the masculine default in a language that gives gendered forms to all job titles.
Although my daughter has no difficulty envisioning herself as a hose-wielding rescuer, she does have a hard time thinking of any other word for the job. And it’s not just because she’s still in preschool.
Kabai comes from the same root as lekhabot, meaning “to extinguish” or “to turn off” (as in turning off the light or the oven, not the jaded spouse), so it – like the two-word (but still masculine) job title mekhabe esh (me-kha-BEH esh) – basically means “one who extinguishes.” The longer title spells out the object that’s being extinguished by incorporating the word esh, meaning “fire,” for a job title that sounds like what a red metal cylinder might put at the top of its resume: “fire extinguisher.”
The obvious feminine version of kabai would normally be kaba’it. But although the Academy of the Hebrew Language has ruled that “female firefighter” is an acceptable definition of kaba’it, Israelis have not gotten along with the word like a house on fire, primarily because kaba’it already has a more familiar function: It’s the name of the red siren-graced vehicle that hauls those firefighters to the source of the flames. "Kaba'it on a kaba'it," someone with the handle Fire Fighter Junior posted on a Hebrew chat room for firefighters and rescue personnel, in response to news of Israel's first female firefighter.
It wouldn’t have been the first time the word for a woman in a male-dominated field would be borrowed from a feminine word already in use for something else in that field. Just as a kaba’it is a fire truck, a tayeset is an air force squadron – as well as a female pilot (the masculine form is tayas). A bit confusing, yes, but workable.
But firefighters haven’t quite warmed up to the approach that has taken off for pilots. Instead, they favor a term translated from the useful English word that developed as an alternative to the male-only “fireman”: lohemet esh, meaning “firefighter.” Of course, the whole point in English was to create a gender-neutral job title, but since that doesn’t work in Hebrew, it is more likely to be the women who are called “firefighters” – even if there are only 18 of them, out of about 2,000 firefighters nationwide, according to a December report of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.
"We thought it was a little strange to call them kaba'iyot [the plural of kaba'it], because after all, it is a kind of vehicle," Yitzhak Shimoni, the commander of the National Fire and Rescue training school, told Ynet in 2008.
The term lohamot esh (to use the plural) is not necessarily instantly recognizable to all laypeople, especially since it, like female firefighters themselves, are a recent addition to the Israeli scene. In writing about female firefighters in Hadera in 2007, a local weekly in the north found it necessary to fully explain the term to its readers, writing: “Bravo, the Hadera Municipal Association has welcomed a new batch of lohamot esh, meaning kaba’im of the female sex, ‘lohamot esh’ to distinguish from the fire truck called a kaba’it.”
As for my daughter, playing with fire continues to be banned in our house, but I have begun teaching her that when she plays at fighting fire she's a firefighter (the female kind), not a fire extinguisher or a fire truck.
To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at email@example.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.