Word of the Day / Davka: Now You See What It Means, Now You Don't

This word, with roots in Yiddish and Aramaic, defies literal translation and can shift its meaning from sentence to sentence.

Guy Raivitz

When people say there is no English equivalent for the word “davka,” they don’t necessarily mean that the gist of the word cannot be put across in any given sentence; but the translation may differ from sentence to sentence, and there is no single English word that quite captures all those variations.

“Davka” is often translated, in a sometimes clunky fashion, as “precisely,” as when the timing of political moves is questioned with “lama davka ahshav?” – why (precisely) now, as opposed to any other time? In colloquial English, this would be left at “why now?” but the added “davka” makes the question more pointed, implying a host of unsaid reasons that the time chosen was now, of all times. It is this meaning, of “bediyuk” – “precisely” or “just so” – that derives from the Aramaic.

The July 2006 first edition of Israel’s first Hebrew-language journal about Yiddish culture explained why the editors called their journal “Davka,” whose full meaning came into Hebrew through the Yiddish, notwithstanding its Aramaic derivation. “Why ‘Davka’?” the introduction asked. “Because this word encapsulates the story of the relationship between Yiddish and Hebrew – the two related languages that at times lived in fraternity with one another and at times in discord. In its Aramaic source, the word ‘davka’ taught that one must be precise about things; but Yiddish imbued the word with its useful meaning, which we know today, of ‘thus and no other way’ or ‘doing [something] davka.’”

Doing something “davka” can mean willfully, spitefully or deliberately taking an action calculated to antagonize, in which case “on purpose” may fit the translation bill: “He says he didn’t mean to lock me out, but I think he did it davka.”

It can also imply a paradox, something unexpected, whether for the good or the bad. When used in this sense, “actually” may be a good way to get the idea across in English: “She couldn’t stop criticizing the play when she got home, but then she davka wrote a pretty positive review”; “You may think I hate parties, but I davka had a great time.” This is the sense in which TheMarker used it in a recent Hebrew headline: “16,000 layoffs? According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment davka dropped to 6.5 percent.”

Then there’s the phrase “lav [not] davka,” which means “not necessarily.” That phrase is turned on its head when deployed as part of a bilingual pun used by a dating website for Israelis with disabilities, whose name – “Love Davka” – plays with the implied question of “You’ve got a disability and what you want to pursue right now is a relationship?” by answering: Yes, davka love.