When television judge and pop icon Paula Abdul came to Israel last year to celebrate her bat mitzvah at the age of 51, she met with then-President Shimon Peres and used an Israeli slang word dating roughly to her glory era of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
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After Peres gave her a bottle of olive oil pressed from olives that grow on the lawn of the President’s Residence and told her he was sure she would “feel the warmth and love of the people of Israel” wherever she went, Abdul responded: “Everyone told me you’re so sababa and it’s true.”
Sababa is one of several Hebrew slang words meaning “great” or “cool” and can express enthusiasm, satisfaction or assent (“sure,” “no problem”).
“How was your presentation? Did everything go as planned?” one colleague might ask another. “Oh yeah,” the response might be. “It all went sababa, no hitches.”
Sababa comes from the Arabic word tzababa, which means “great” or “excellent” in spoken Arabic, though it is also a more formal Arabic word meaning “yearning” or “strong love.”
The word has changed its meaning somewhat in Hebrew as well, notes Hebrew etymology site Hasafa Haivrit, with the word today at times connoting acceptance of an unpleasant task, as in the army-derived phrase “Take the basa b’sababa” (“Kah et habasa b’sababa”). This means that when things look bad or aren’t going your way (that’s the basa part), take it in stride (b’sababa) and keep your cool.
And just as you can have pretty please with a cherry on top, you can also have sababa egozim, which literally means “sababa nuts,” and is basically just a twist on the original sababa.
"Sababa" is also a line of snacks originally put out by Elite (which is now part of Strauss Group) in the 1990s. The most well-known of these is a small packet of crunchy coated peanuts in green and red packaging: some speculate that this snack brand is the origin of sababa egozim.
Like the rhyming pairs yofi tofi and ahla bahla, which also mean “great” and are not far off from English’s own “okey dokey,” sababa egozim is mentioned in the song “Ahla Bahla,” which appears in a popular 2003 album by the since-disbanded Israeli band Hadorbanim.
The phrase (here meaning “I’m cool with that”) is also part of a 2012 commercial for a chocolate-nut spread made by the company that manufactures the classic old-style Israeli chocolate spread, Hashachar Ha’oleh. In the commercial, an Israeli security official tells a row of American generals in heavily accented English that he needs their approval for an unspecified attack. “I promise we will be in and out in 33 minutes,” he says. “General Rogers, we have the right to defend ourselves!”
In a response that in light of recent events seems both out of touch and oddly lighthearted, the U.S. general opens the chocolate-nut spread, licks the chocolate off the cover and responds: “Sababa egozim!”
To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.