How Did Elephants Get Into the Rifle Barrel?

This and other examples of IDF slang are plumbed in linguist Ruvik Rosenthal’s new book

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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IDF soldiers during the Yom Kippur war
IDF soldiers during the Yom Kippur warCredit: Government Press Office
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A new study of IDF slang by linguist Ruvik Rosenthal reveals how the fighting spirit became “poison” thanks to Israel’s first foreign minister, and where the recipe for “Fibonacci soup” comes from.

In the first years of the state, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett complained about the widespread use of the English word “morale” in Hebrew. “There exists in our language a very lovely and simple word for the same concept,” he wrote. Citing biblical verses, he proposed that the word ruach (“spirit”) be adopted instead.

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The army was quick to run with the idea and coin terms like ruach lehima (“fighting spirit”), ruach hayechida (“esprit de corps,” “camaraderie”) and ruach tzahal (“IDF spirit”) that are still in use today.

Decades later, another bit of Israel Defense Forces slang came to be used by the young generation of soldiers to describe motivation and desire to fight: ra’al (literally, “poison”). When the linguist Ruvik Rosenthal, whose latest book, “A Portrait of the Language of the Israeli Army” (Hebrew, Bialik Institute) was able to trace the term’s origin, it brought a smile to his face. Turns out that ra’al, in the military sense, evolved from rahal – the Hebrew abbreviation for ruach halechima, the term inspired by Sharett’s complaint of 70 years ago.

“This word ra’al is a key word for expressing a desire and passion to fight,” says Rosenthal, citing a few of its numerous derivatives, such as mur’al (a soldier who is extremely motivated) and “Yallah, b’ra’al” (a motivating order), and attributing its evolution to the “softening of the consonant heh that is characteristic of Israeli pronunciation.”

But the original meaning of the word ra’al, as a dangerous substance that affects the living organism, is not completely left behind. Rosenthal, who collected 6,000 modern military idioms for his book, quotes the lines “If we had ra’al [in the military sense of the term], we would drink it” and “The ra’al is already in the pipeline, we’re just waiting for the okay to open the tap and let it flow into the vein” from Joseph Cedar’s movie “Beaufort.”

linguist Ruvik RosenthalCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

And what happened to the old-fashioned “morale”? Rosenthal found that it has not fallen completely out of use and still pops up here and there in military-related texts.

Flooding the linguistic space

The new work by Rosenthal, a linguist, journalist, author and recipient of the Sokolow Prize, is an adaptation of his recent doctoral thesis at Bar-Ilan University on the linguistic characteristics of Israeli military language. But Rosenthal, who turns 75 this year, does not have a glorious military past himself, he is quick to note. “My own military service was quite ridiculous, I hardly did anything.” But as a linguist, he has come to see that for better or worse, “The army is the most important institution in Israeli society.” And, accordingly, the unique language that is created within that institution, which is spoken but not understood by all, deserves a serious study of its own.

“The Israeli military language awaits the observer and the listener at every junction of the language, peeking out from new books, from song and the newspaper,” he writes in the introduction to his book. “It floods the linguistic space with a wave of words, idioms and manners of speech.” And Rosenthal tells Haaretz, “On the one hand, it’s a language that everyone speaks and its influence on ‘civilian’ Hebrew is very great. On the other hand, it’s a very closed language, one you know if you are in the army, but that you forget as soon as you are discharged, and then when you go back for reserve duty, you find that it has changed.”

When he first contacted the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit about his research, the army seemed to share his ra’al for the subject, but then would not agree at first to let him see what for him was the holy grail – the classified military dictionary. But Rosenthal wouldn’t give up and eventually was able to get hold of it to use as a source and also to obtain the military censor’s permission to publish the book.

The unusual bibliography for the book includes a wide variety of sources, including military documents from different periods. Other sources included dialogues from documentary and fictional films on cinema and television that depict the military experience, like “Lebanon” and “Basic Training”; excerpts from literary works like Ron Leshem’s novel “Beaufort”’; military booklets and brochures; reports by military reporters and interviews with soldiers.

IDF soldiers before a drill, 1955 Credit: Government Press Office

One of them was a 20-year-old in the navy who in his spare time compiled a dictionary of the military expressions he encountered in his service. There was also the mother of a soldier who said she didn’t understand what her son meant when he said he was a ratz kankan (the guy who brings the coffee), and other examples.

As for the origins of the idioms he collected in his book, Rosenthal admits that as with civilian slang, with military slang there is largely no way of knowing who was the first to coin the terms. “Nor is there a formula that would explain why just one out of a hundred expressions gets absorbed into the language and all the other 99 disappear,” he says. However, in his research he was able to discover the origins of some of the most popular military terms.

For example, Rosenthal ascribes the popular word chupar (a bonus or treat) to the tendency in spoken Hebrew to replace the shin with a ch sound as in the common word mech’amem (originally mesha’amem, boring). On his website, Hazira Haleshonit, Rosenthal cited the testimony of a soldier who related that during the waiting period leading up to the Six-Day War, the army issued improved (meshuparot) battle rations to the troops and this was even printed on the packages. In the parlance of the soldiers, meshuparot soon became mechuparot, and before long the noun chupar was born. Another interesting etymology is the army word “Dana” to refer to an International model truck, in homage to Dana International, the Israeli Eurovision winner.

Lexicon from the culinary world

The culinary world also contributed many new expressions to the IDF language, like “phosphorus fries” (fried food of exceedingly poor quality) and “cat burgers” (the kebabs served in the mess hall of a certain army base). Meanwhile, “jobnik” (non-combat) units, another very popular army word, have also enriched the language with their own new inventions. In Mamram, the Center of Computing and Information Systems unit, they talk about “Fibonacci soup” – a mixture of soups that were served in the last days, borrowed from the “Fibonacci sequence,” a mathematical term for a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers.

Rosenthal says that Israeli army language is essentially “a spoken, functional and instrumental language in which efficiency is the most important linguistic characteristic.” In the book he explains that this language is naturally inclined toward conciseness so as not to streamline the execution of orders and make military assignments more easily comprehensible. Thus, this military language forgoes some of the familiar linguistic functions of civilian or literary language, and is also why it uses so many abbreviations and invents expressions that are not used in the general language.

Foreign words have also made their way into Israeli army language, even from Polish: Every soldier who’s ever had to clean a rifle is familiar with the annoyance of having pilim bakaneh (literally, elephants in the rifle barrel). What’s the connection between the big animal and dirt? Well, it seems that the Hebrew word pilim here actually derives from the Polish word pyl which means “speck of dust.”

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