Firgun.

Haaretz has a “Word of the Day” feature, and Shoshana Kordova writes about “Firgun: The art of tooting someone else’s horn”:

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. … 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.

Which is interesting in itself, but I probably wouldn’t have posted about it without the final section of the article, which has an unexpected etymology (unexpected to me, with my patchy German) and a nice example of failed and foolish peevery:

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 [actually vergönnen -- LH] – in another language.
. . .

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.

I love that attempt to defend “young, feeble Hebrew” against the depredations of that bully Yiddish. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Comments

  1. I like that word! If we search for concepts of opposite to schadenfreude than we can invert either schaden or freude. If we invert both the result is jealousy, if only freude it’s something like commiseration or maybe even sympathy. But if only schaden is inverted than … can we borrow that Hebrew word, please.

  2. Nice article! To nitpick, lir’ot b’ayin tovah, rather than lirot b’ayin tovah ‘to shoot a good eye’, which is not very nice. “Dayan doesn’t mefargen Peres” is odd to me, because this verb takes an indirect object with le- ‘to’, so I’d write “mefargen to Peres.”

  3. Fascinating, as always.

  4. Yiddish threat to Hebrew is almost real.

    It is spoken as a first langauge in Israel by ultra Orthodox Haredi Jews who now number about 10% of Israel’s population and due to their strong religious beliefs they have very high growth rates.

    It is thought that they might become majority of Israeli sometime by the middle of this century.

    And presumably by then Yiddish might well overtake Hebrew….

  5. Colloquially, the verb also means to give someone a small gift, or something complementary. e.g. “The barman went to the same school as us and [firgen] us with free shots”.

  6. The German word is vergönnen, with the umlaut, vergoennen in ASCII. Gönnen is a bit more common, linked mostly to patronage (e.g. of the arts) in my experience. The Grimms tell me it was more general, which would fit with the Yiddish development.

  7. Trond Engen says:

    Swedish gynna “benefit, promote (sth.)”. Without the umlaut and the fossilized prefix unna “let have (with a good heart)”. German Gunst “favour, patronage, boon”.

  8. Are there any English cognates?

  9. The German word is vergönnen, with the umlaut

    Thanks, I’ve added a note to that effect.

    Are there any English cognates?

    Not any more; we used to have geunnan (present geann, past tense geúðe, past participle geunnen), ge- prefix + unnan to grant, but it hasn’t been used since c1275 (Laȝamon, Brut 8259 “Godd hit me iuðe þat ich hine igripen habben”).

  10. “Dayan doesn’t mefargen Peres” is odd to me, because this verb takes an indirect object with le- ‘to’, so I’d write “mefargen to Peres.”

    Same as [ver]gönnen. Example: Bei ihrem noch geschwächten Gesundheitszustand sollte sie draußen nicht so herumtollen, aber da sie so lange das Bett hüten mußte, gönne ich es ihr.

    As Aidan remarks, “gönnen is a bit more common”. There is, however, a fixed expression with vergönnen (not gönnen): Es war ihm nicht vergönnt, …. This means something like: “It was not in the stars / was not to be”. Example: Es war ihm nicht vergönnt, vor seinem Tod noch die Geburt seines Sohnes zu erleben.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    …Looks like somebody consciously undid the umlaut in importing that word. o_O

  12. No, (le)fargen is from farginen — the rest is derivational morphology.

  13. I once looked up “gönnen” in a German-English/English-German dictionary and got “not begrudge” — then looked up “begrudge” in the other half of the book and got “nicht gönnen”.

  14. The quoted anti-firgun peever may have been partly driven by antipathy to initial [f], which is or used to be anathema to Hebrew purists. I remember when the Academy still insisted that the Hebrew for festival was pestival, though I think they’ve climbed down from that tree since.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    No, (le)fargen is from farginen — the rest is derivational morphology.

    Firgun from fargin- is derivational morphology? If so, I’m happy.

    I once looked up “gönnen” in a German-English/English-German dictionary and got “not begrudge” — then looked up “begrudge” in the other half of the book and got “nicht gönnen”.

    Accurate.

  16. TR, I bet you’re right. The initial /f/ is very common in Arabic and Yiddish and consequently in Hebrew words borrowed from these languages, which often refer to unrefined things. All the same, I can’t imagine anyone daring to come up with a properly Hebrew substitute for falafel.

    The four consonants in the root frgn also marks the word as one from the wrong side of the tracks.

  17. David M., yes, that i-u is a very common and productive template for deverbal nouns.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    *happy* ^_^

  19. Firgun from fargin- is derivational morphology?

    Verb borrowings in Hebrew mostly, though not quite always, ignore the vowels — it’s only the consonants that matter, and which ones cluster (you don’t break up a consonant cluster).

    The four consonants in the root frgn also marks the word as one from the wrong side of the tracks.

    I don’t know about that — there are plenty of native quadriliteral verbs, though many are derived from more basic triliterals by various processes.

  20. I don’t know about that — there are plenty of native quadriliteral verbs, though many are derived from more basic triliterals by various processes.
    Sure, and some respectable borrowings too, like irgun, but the ones in everyday speech at least are more likely to be borrowings than triliterals.

  21. @SFReader:

    > [Yiddish] is spoken as a first langauge in Israel by ultra Orthodox Haredi Jews who now number about 10% of Israel’s population […]

    It’s true that there are Haredim who have Yiddish as a first language, and it’s true that about 10% of the population are Haredim, but it’s not true that about 10% of the population are Haredim who have Yiddish as a first language.

    @Y:

    > […] the [quadriliteral verbs] in everyday speech at least are more likely to be borrowings than triliterals.

    That’s certainly true, though to some extent I think it might be more better to say that borrowings are more likely to be quadriliterals than triliterals. (By Bayes’ rule, the two statements are technically equivalent, but still . . .)

  22. Hebrew has difficulty assimilating verbs from other languages because Hebrew inflects verbs by a regular pattern of varying the internal vowels. (There are also prefixes and suffixes, but even these then undergo the vowel transformations.) This requires that all verbs have 3 or at most 4 root consonants from which the vowels can be strung. Verbs that can’t adapted to the pattern are like chunks of gristle in a nice meaty stew.

    But where the foreign word happens to have 3 or 4 consonants Hebrew can adopt it happily, as in this case. Here the root letters are f-r-g-n, and the vowels append quite comfortably from them.
    Another example is t-l-f-n, from telephone, which gives l’talfen, to call, tilfanti, I called, etc.

  23. But where the foreign word happens to have 3 or 4 consonants Hebrew can adopt it happily, as in this case. Here the root letters are f-r-g-n, and the vowels append quite comfortably from them.
    Another example is t-l-f-n, from telephone, which gives l’talfen, to call, tilfanti, I called, etc.

    A few more: le-patrel / to patrol; le-natrel / to neutralize; le-subsed / to subsidize; le-daklem / to declaim.

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