Let’s say your Israeli friend just told you about the Australian passenger on a flight to Indonesia who, after having taken several painkillers, triggered a hijack scare when he mistook the cockpit for the bathroom.
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Unsure how to respond to this unusual news? Let me help. What you need is a flexible, multifaceted word that typically expresses surprise or disbelief and, depending on inflection and context, can mean “wow!” “really?!” “that’s interesting!” “impressive!” “oh my God!” “holy cow!” or the old-school British “I say!” (without sounding old-school in Hebrew). In a word, walla!
The walla of the Middle East has little to do with the Walla Walla tribe of American Indians, the Hindi-derived word referring to someone associated with or in charge of a specific activity (like “chai walla,” the job of the main character in “Slumdog Millionaire”) or, as one French reader suggested, the similar-sounding exclamation voila.
Rather, the walla we’re talking about comes from the Arabic word that means “by Allah!” or “I swear to God!” It is made up of the word “Allah” and the “w” sound that can be used in Arabic to represent an oath. (Hebrew doesn’t have a “w” sound, instead using a double “v,” in the form of two vavs.)
Walla! is also an Israeli news site that, like Yahoo!, appropriated an exclamation for itself (punctuation mark and all). It’s the kind of place where you could potentially read an article about an Australian who had to pee and found himself suspected of being a hijacker.
The next time you find yourself banging on the door of a room that might or might not have a toilet inside, just think: “Walla, good thing I’m not on an airplane!”
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.