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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why, why, why –?

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Say it just like in the headline:  WHY, WHY, WHY???  Wring your hands; shake your head.  Sounds almost like English, right?

It’s not:  it’s Hebrew, the quintessential Hebrew of the streets, the inner dialogue of Israelis as they shuffle along down the street.  “Why, why, why?”

This expression baffled me for months after we got here.  What the heck did it mean?

I realized almost right away, just from the context, that it doesn’t mean “why.”  That would have been too easy.  For one thing, it always comes in threes.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard any Israeli say just, “why?”  But you might mistake it for a single word if they say it quickly enough.

Google hasn’t been helpful – it translates it as “Wai” (which doesn’t add much), and Morfix says the word isn’t found.

Currently, I think it’s somewhere between a “whoa!” of mild disbelief and an “alas!” of slight disappointment or disgruntlement.

If you walk outdoors and it’s startlingly cold, you mutter “why, why, why?” to yourself.  If the bus takes too long to come, or your transfer rips, you can mutter “why, why, why?” under your breath.  But if the magnitude of the tragedy is great enough to make you say “why?” in English – as in, “why would a benevolent God do this to me?!?” – then you are already WELL beyond the scope of the Hebrew “why, why, why?”

Whatever the heck it means (feel free to jump in and rescue me by explaining!) here’s a kinda-catchy song you may or may not enjoy by the same name.

The words say:

וואי וואי וואי שמש זורחת מעליי ליי ליי
כמו דג במים אני חי חי חי
לפי הקצב של המטקות אני זז
ולא חושב יותר מידי

Wai Wai Wai Sun shining over me Lei Lei
Like a fish in water I Living Living Living
To the beat of the paddles could I move
And not think too much

וואי וואי וואי שמש זורחת מעליי ליי ליי
כמו דג במים אני חי חי חי
לפי הקצב של המטקות אני זז

Wai Wai Wai Sun shining over me Lei Lei
Like a fish in water I Living Living Living
To the beat of the paddles could I move

Just the kind of intelligent song I love!

Anyone care to help me out here???

7 comments:

  1. northern slang? My mind may still be fuddled due to jetlag, but can't help, sorry.

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  2. I've always wondered, but I bet it's from something in pop culture that we missed, like how somebody who never saw Seinfeld wouldn't get what "yadda, yadda, yadda" means or why it also comes in threes.

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    Replies
    1. I never watched Seinfeld - I just thought this was a "New Yorkish" kind of expression, sort of akin to "blah, blah, blah," which also comes in threes. :-)

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  3. You're right about "whoa" and "alas," but I'd say the best translation is "wow," which, like in English, can be used as a reaction to both good things and bad. On one hand, you have people muttering "wai, wai, wai" when something goes wrong. Likr, "wai, wai, wai, I just missed the last bus home." On the other, until recently (and maybe still) TV commercials for Tzabar salads ended with a little jingle of "wai, wai, wai Tzabar!" which was certainly meant to be positive! Or, if you see your friend driving down the street in a new Audi, you might exclaim "wai, wai, wai" while shaking your hand or your head from side to side in admiration. And yes, it's always said 3 times. I can't help you with a reason for that one :-) Oh - and it's not pop culture: it's used by old and young alike.

    By the way, this dual usage is similar to another puzzling, but more recent Israeli expression, "chaval al hazman." In traditional Hebrew, this means "a waste of time." But more recently, you'll hear people saying, "that's a great restaurant, chaval al hazman," which actually means that it's wonderful. It's pretty much all in the tone of voice and facial expression!

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  4. I think that chaval al hazman underwent a similar transformation that "bad" went in American slang, where it can be used to mean "very good."

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  5. @Bracha, great points! My ulpan teacher warned us about "chaval al hazman" - like as in, "that movie was a TOTAL waste of time," meaning it was terrific. :-D

    @Batya, I don't think it's just northern. My son picked up this expression after 3 days on the Alyn Ride last October and although he was IN the north, I suspect most of the Israelis on the ride were from the merkaz. Plus, face it, even the "far north" is only 3 hours up from Yerushalayim and chayalim travel up and down every day. Not much cultural isolation up here. :-D

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  6. funny post.
    Why Why Why is, as most silly sounding stuff you hear on the street, is derived from Arabic.
    And words of wisdom - Israeli logic rarely makes sense.

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