Word of the Day / Traktor: The Word That Doesn't Always Mean Tractor

Modern Hebrew does have words for excavators, bulldozers and so on, but nobody knows what they are.

Tractor by field set afire by a rocket (Eliahu Hershkowitz)
This is a real tractor, shown next to a field where a Qassam rocket landed, setting the crop on fire (July 1, 2014)

On Monday, a Palestinian terrorist ran over a man in Jerusalem, then went on to ram a bus, turning it over. Then he was shot down and killed.

The story was widely covered in the Israeli press and, in Hebrew, the vehicle he drove was, by consensus, called trak-TOR. But beware casual assumptions. What he was driving was not a tractor, or a traktor either for that matter. It was an excavator, or digger, which in Hebrew is makh-PER.

If you are a farmer, or just have a clue about heavy machinery and etymology, you know that a traktor is a vehicle used to haul machinery, usually over fields. Its name says as much. The English word "tractor" comes from the Latin word tractus, the perfect passive participle of trahō – “I drag.”

The Academy of the Hebrew Language accepted traktor as a legitimate word in 1955, and created the word makhper for excavator in 1966. But the newsdesk at Haaretz, for one, decided to stick with traktor this week, despite the mechanical inaccuracy because, the editors explain, nobody knows what a makhper is.

Something similar happened in October 2013, when another Palestinian tried to force his way into an Israeli army base, again driving heavy machinery. Then, too, the Israeli media all reported that the terrorist was driving a traktor – but it wasn't, it was a bulldozer, in Hebrew dakh-POR, which is a portmanteau that Israel’s second Prime Minister Moshe Sharett coined over 50 years ago.

The bottom line is that Israelis have the words but don't really distinguish between different kinds of heavy equipment, and have wound up popularly using traktor to cover just about everything with giant wheels that isn't a truck.