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Natalie Portman Teaches Hebrew Slang. Here's What She Got Wrong

Haaretz’s house etymologist explains the mistakes by Natalie Portman, born in Israel as Natalie Hershlag. Evidently she's been away a while.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Natalie Portman's Hebrew Slang 101
Natalie Portman's Hebrew Slang 101Credit: Vanity Fair / YouTube
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Vanity Fair released a video on Tuesday featuring Natalie Portman giving a lesson in Hebrew slang. Sporting a shirt striped in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, Portman – who was born in Israel as Natalie Hershlag – spanned everything from figures of speech to very rude language indeed.

But she evidently hasn't been around the Holy Land streets for a while. Here’s what she got wrong or omitted.

Portman suggests that ben zona, literally “son of a whore,” is slang for "son of a bitch." Arguably, however, that isn't slang, just a common insult.

Credit: Vanity Fair / YouTube

What is slang, and she neglected to mention, is use of ben zona to mean “excellent,” which has been common in Hebrew since the early 2000s. For example, one might say “haseret hakhadash shel Natalie Portman ben zona” meaning “Natalie Portman’s latest movie is terrific”.

Moving onto etymology, Portman is also most likely wrong to connect Hebrew’s balagan (“mess, disorder”) with English “balcony.”

The Hebrew word balagan derives from the Persian phrase bala khana or balchan – literally “the top of the house,” or, “attic," "roof.” Probably through Turkish, this word made its way into Russian, where it gained the meaning “temporary hut.”

Come the 18th century, a culture of clowns, jugglers and puppeteers moving from town to town and performing in little huts became common in Russia. The huts, in Russian balagan, came to be associated with the buffoonery performed in them. Over time, the Russian word balagan began to mean “mess, disorder.”

When Russian immigrants began to throng Palestine in the early 20th century, they brought the word balagan with them and it has been a part of Hebrew ever since.

Some sources argue that the Italian word balcone, which is the source of English balcony, comes from the same Persian source. However, the Oxford English Dictionary tells that it derives from the High German word balcho, meaning “beam” (of lumber).

Another error Portman makes regards the modern Hebrew use of manyak.

Outdated dictionaries of slang from the 1970s do say that manyak means maniac and is derived from it. But today, manyak does not mean “maniac,” as Portman claims. It is a general derogatory term that is perhaps best translated as "asshole."

Hebrew got this word from Arabic, where manyak has now the same meaning, but originally meant “one who is on the receiving end of homosexual sex." It has nothing to do with "maniac" which European languages got through Latin from mania, the Greek word for "madness."

* Read more on Hebrew linguistics and history from Elon Gilad, Haaretz's house etymologist

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