Word of the Day Im Lesavta Hayu Galgalim: Beware of Wheeled Grandmothers

Israelis have to be careful when using conditionals, as they could end up being mocked using this Yiddish-derived phrase, even if they are ministers.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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A grandmother on wheels
A grandmother on wheels Credit: Dreamstime
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

“If I had a million dollars / Well, I'd buy you a fur coat / But not a real fur coat, that's cruel,” Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies (none of whom are ladies, though presumably they are sometimes bare naked) sing in their hit 1990s song “If I Had $1,000,000.”

$1 million may not buy what it used to, but if the Kraft dinner-loving persona whose wishful thinking drives the song were a) real and b) Israeli, he might well have met with the somewhat old-fashioned Yiddish-derived rebuttal Im lesavta hayu galgalim: “If grandma had wheels.”

In other words, you can go on and on about driving to the store in a limousine because it costs more, but all those conditional sentences are as meaningless as talking about your grandmother having wheels for feet – in which case, she wouldn’t be a limo, she’d be a bus (hi hayta otobus), as the full phrase usually goes in Hebrew. (There are other wheeled variations, though, including “wagon” and “bicycle.”)

Im lesavta hayu galgalim is a way of pouring cold water on the head of a dreamer or nipping an unrealistic hypothetical scenario in the bud. The situation is what it is, this phrase dismissively asserts, and fantasizing about what could be in an alternate universe is useless and silly.

The second half of the phrase is often tweaked for humor value, as in various responses to a statement by then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a few months after the Second Lebanon War of 2006, that “had the war not broken out, we would have changed every realm of Israel.” Readers responded with a variety of other “if” statements involving a certain member of the family, from the simple “If grandma had wheels” to alternatives such as “If grandma had wheels, she’d be a scooter” and “If grandma had wheels, she’d be defense minister.”

If we were to mangle an English phrase with a similar meaning, we could add: If wishes were buses, beggars would ride... on your grandma.
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.



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