I don’t always carry a dictionary with me, and don’t have a smartphone so I don’t do dictionary apps. But even if I did, I couldn’t look up every single word. Especially if it’s a word that I can figure out on my own.
In Hebrew, lots of nouns are made from other words by adding prefixes, suffixes and changing the vowels around a little bit. Take the word לבקר / levaker, to visit (verb), shift the letters around a bit, and you get ביקור/ bikur, a visit (noun). The language is wonderfully flexible that way.
So when I started noticing the word אֵיכוּת / eychut popping up all over the place around me, like on product packaging and bus-stop signs, I could have looked it up. But I already knew its root, איך / eych, which means “how” – like the manner of doing something (“how’s the weather?” “how was your day at school?”).
Naturally, I just shifted it into noun form in my head: how… in noun form. Doesn’t really exist in English, I reasoned, but that’s nothing new. If it did, it would be… “howishness.”
How charming: the “howishness” of the weather, the “howishness” of your day at school, the “howishness” of the environment, or the manufacturing of whatever-it-is inside the product packaging in question.
This made-up word, howishness, literally lived in my head for about three months… until I read an article about Tu b’Shvat in the Jerusalem Post Easy Hebrew edition.
The article, about ecology and Tu b’Shvat, mentioned איכות הסביבה / eichut has’viva. Environmental howishness: a lovely use for my favourite new word! But I noticed the phrase was in blue, meaning there was an entry for it in the small dictionary at the end of the article. The dictionary said, “Quality of the Environment.”
That meant my new favourite, exotic Hebrew word meant…
Really??? Such a common, everyday thing, and I’d totally missed the boat?
A word I’d taken as an exotic sign of how beautiful and flexible Hebrew was, to offer its speakers simple way to describe the howishness of all things, and of how very lacking English was… was, in fact, totally ordinary.
But it’s too late. Deep in my head, this odd bird has already latched on; this word that will not be released from its responsibilities easily.
Talk all you like about the quality of the environment, or your company’s committment to quality, but if you say it in Hebrew, you should know that I’m paying attention not just to what you say, but to the howishness with which you say it.