Word of the Day / Firgun: The Art of Tooting Someone Else's Horn

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Jorge Lorenzo (No. 2) and Dani Pedrosa (No. 3) applaud Casey Stoner, the winner of the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix. That's "firgun".Credit: Dreamstime.com

You tell your friend how much she deserves the prize she just won – and you really mean it. Or perhaps your coworker comes up with such a great idea that you can’t stop going on about how much you like it. (Presumably this is what happened to the first person who said, “I know! What this office really needs is a coffee machine!”)

What you’re engaged in is firgun – a vicarious, ungrudging joy for someone else or pride in another person’s accomplishments. The concept doesn’t have an exact one-word translation in English.

“It describes a generosity of spirit, an unselfish, empathetic joy that something good has happened, or might happen, to another person,” writes Israeli-born U.S. journalist Irin Carmon, adding that she had once “incompletely” translated firgun as “the opposite of schadenfreude.”

Lefargen, to use the infinitive, is to make someone feel good without any ulterior motives or nasty thoughts. This absence of negativity is an integral part of genuine firgun.

Firgun can readily take the form of praise, but a compliment isn’t genuine firgun if you’re just saying something nice because your mother told you to or if you’re secretly burning up inside that someone else achieved something you didn’t.

Firgun from a place of absence cannot be genuine firgun, but only coerced and fake firgun,” writes a self-styled “mentor and master with a national and international reputation on the subject of business and marital success in life” who clearly puts into practice his own recommendation to engage in self-firgun - the art of tooting one’s own horn.

Yiddish alert

Many have wondered how to succinctly get across the meaning of this Israeli word – a Hebraization of the Yiddish farginen (which was actually often used in the negative to mean “to begrudge”), which comes from the German vergonnen – in another language.

“I’ve been asked countless times, ‘How do you say firgun in English?” the former head of Bar-Ilan University’s translation department, now deceased, once said.  “Well, I still don’t have a good translation.”

Firgun may widely be considered a part of the Hebrew language today, but for decades, Hebraists, too, wondered how to convey this word in Hebrew, rather than letting the Yiddish seep into the language unfiltered.

A 1978 language column by Chaim Izak in Davar railed against the use of lefargen, in part citing a letter criticizing the newspaper for using it in its own articles, including the headline “Dayan doesn’t mefargen Peres.” “It has become clear to me that even people of high intellectual level cannot find a fitting word for the concept,” the letter states, calling on the Academy of the Hebrew Language to intervene and find a Hebrew alternative.

Izak suggests using longer, rather unwieldy phrases that convey the meaning of the word in Hebrew but lose its oomph, such as “with all my heart I think he deserves it.” He also mentions what he calls a “heretical comment” from an acquaintance originally from the United States who doesn’t understand why, if Americans can create Yiddish-derived verbs like “to schlep” and “to kibitz,” Hebrew can’t do the same. Izak’s response? “The young, feeble Hebrew... cannot allow itself what more established languages allow themselves.”

Hebraists tried to come up with alternatives, primarily ritui, a rarely used word from the time of the Sages meaning leniency, mildness or resignation. Some thought this could be tweaked a bit to include the meaning of firgun, but it never really took.

As for the Academy for the Hebrew Language, it did end up discussing an official Hebrew alternative and came up with a few potential options, like “lirot b’ayin tovah,” literally “to see with a good eye.”

But the academy ultimately decided against choosing a single Hebrew word or phrase to act as a replacement. Perhaps its members realized they didn’t stand much of a chance against the power of firgun.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.