Maven of the Hebrew Military Lexicon, Avraham Akavia, Laid to Rest

Famed Israeli lexicographer Avraham Akavia, enterprising right hand of Maj.-Gen. Orde Wingate, buried on 98th birthday.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Avraham Akavia during World War II. Coined words that are still in use today.
Avraham Akavia during World War II. Coined words that are still in use today.Credit: Courtesy of the family
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Avraham Akavia, who was responsible for the development of the first Hebrew lexicon of military terms and served as a key aide to Orde Wingate, the legendary British Army figure during Mandatory times, was buried this week on what would have been his 98th birthday.

Akavia was responsible for coining a number of Hebrew words that are in general use to this day, including ledaveah (to report) and iltur (improvisation).

Born in Kolno, Poland in 1916 to a Zionist family, Akavia immigrated with them in 1925 to Palestine. In large measure his life reflected of the history of that period and of the State Israel following its independence in 1948. But Akavia will probably be best remembered for the dictionary of 6,000 Hebrew military terms, published in 1951, which he edited.

Although Hebrew had been revived as a contemporary spoken language decades earlier, there was a need to develop an acceptable vocabulary for a whole range of terms, which are in use in daily life today. Among the other terms featured in Akavia's work are mikum (location), adkani (updated) and tadrich (briefing).

Writing in Haaretz when the dictionary was published, linguist and lexicographer Reuven Alkalay had praise for the book. It would be of value not only for “the military person, war correspondent or news translator, but also for the ordinary citizen for whom many of the expressions could be of benefit in daily speech,” Alkalay wrote.

Akavia was educated at the Reali School and the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa. He witnessed the Arab riots of 1929, and won a gold medal at the first Maccabiah Games, the Olympics of the Jewish world, in 1932. He later joined the Haganah pre-state army, and in 1938 became the right-hand man and translator of Maj.-Gen. Wingate, among other things the man who created the Special Night Squads – counterinsurgency units made up of Jewish and British volunteers.

Akavia fought alongside Wingate in Ethiopia during World War II and was a Jewish Brigade commander in Italy. He fought in Israel’s War of Independence, and after the state was established worked as a manager at its development authority. Specifically, he was responsible for the disposition of land that had been owned by Palestinians who fled the country during the 1948 war.

Akavia wrote about the fascinating development of the military lexicon in his autobiography, “B’sherut Ha’am" (“In the Service of the People”), published in 1996. He had begun collecting and coining words in 1938 while in the Haganah, and continued to do so while serving in the British Army, the Jewish Brigade and in the Israel Defense Forces. (Decades later, he would lose a son in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.)

Stopped press

In 1949, after returning to civilian life, Akavia was able to devote more time to assembling his lexicon.

“I sat at home in the evening and I went through all of the booklets that the IDF and the Haganah had published to extract the latest innovations,” he recounted. In the IDF at the time, there was an office charged with coming up with military terminology but its staff refused to cooperate with Akavia, because, as he explained it, “many there were of the belief that publication of a military dictionary was the IDF’s job and not that of a civilian like me.”

The tension between Akavia and the military establishment reached its peak when Haim Laskov, who was later IDF chief of staff but at the time was head of the army’s training branch, ordered a halt to the printing of Akavia’s lexicon after part of it had already been set in type.

“I remained stuck with the dictionary, and I didn’t have the means to continue the work,” wrote Akavia, who solved the problem by selling dozens of pages of advertising space in the book.

His woes didn’t end there, however. The young country had a shortage of paper and importing it from abroad necessitated foreign currency, which was a bureaucratic process in and of itself. Akavia purchased a ton of paper from Sweden and in the interim borrowed paper from three Israeli printing plants.

“Those with a sharp eye could see that the dictionary was printed on three types of paper, all of which had a certain percentage of wood and were not wood-free, which would have been more expensive,” he wrote. Nonetheless, the book’s binding was of high-quality fabric.

Akavia’s interest in language surfaced at the beginning of his military career. In 1936, after finishing a Haganah course, he was asked to transcribe a booklet of military terms on a typewriter. He wasn’t satisfied with the task that he was given and suggested that vowels, the diacritical dots and dashes that indicate vowels in Hebrew, also be added. He was later to recount that Sa’adia Goldberg, the Haganah’s language expert, didn’t find a single mistake in the vowels he had added. Goldberg then recruited Akavia to work in the Haganah’s central training office, where he did translation and editing work on professional military manuals.

“In practice, we had to create a military language, most of its new or revived. We sometimes also lacked general terminology,” Akavia wrote later.

His first translation job involved a British military publication that dealt with what was called "application of weapons fire."

“We deliberated for weeks over the translation of the term ‘application,’” he wrote. “It was only years later that the term yisum was invented. Now everything looks so simple and natural.”

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