Word of the Day / Balash: The Curious Incident of Israeli Police Rejecting a Word

Hebrew snubbed its own root for 'search' and tapped Aramaic for a word for gumshoe.

Ba-LASH is the Hebrew word for detective, whether a private eye - a balash prati (“private detective”) or a police detective - balash mishtarti. Police officers themselves usually prefer the more prestigious-sounding word khoker (“investigator”) when referring to themselves, however.

Hebrew gets its word for gumshoe from the Aramaic, which was the franca lingua of the ancient Near East. The ancient root b-l-sh simply means to search. (Not that ancient Hebrew didn't have a word for search – it did: the root kh-p-s.)

Use of the Aramaic root goes back centuries: The Mishnah tells us of government search parties - boleshet - armed with makel balashin - sticks used to search for contraband in sacks and barrels.

Yet use of Aramaic waned with the years and disappeared entirely during the Middle Ages, at least among Jews. As the language languished, so did use of the root b-l-sh; there are no mentions of balash or bolesh in the Gemara.

This would change in the late 19th century when Yehuda Leib Gordon, one of the most important writers involved in reviving the Hebrew language, began to use it to refer to the czar’s search parties that were disrupting the peace in the Jewish shtetls. He called them boleshet, a word he learned from the Talmud while studying in the heder.

Gordon worked in the influential newspaper Hamelitz, where the word came to be used for the secret police.

After World War I, when the British occupied Palestine, they set up a police force that included the Crime Investigation Division, whose members were detectives. While the rest of the police force was open to local Jews and Arabs, these detectives came from the U.K..

It was during this time, the 1920s, that Hebrew speakers started using the word balash to refer to detectives. One police officer, David Tidhar, quit the Palestinian police force in 1925 and opened his own detective agency in Tel Aviv, thereby becoming the first Hebrew detective.