Hebrew Slang.

Fred Skolnik (editor in chief of the Encyclopaedia Judaica) has a great piece in the Ilanot Review about Hebrew slang. There are also some absurd generalizations sprinkled here and there (British English is “calcified and effete,” journalists “speak and write in platitudes”), but ignore them and enjoy the lively descriptions of Hebrew and its slang. A couple of excerpts:

Also “fuck,” which becomes fack (rhymes with sock), is regularly exclaimed without any real sense of what is being said, though focking is perceived as somewhat strong even if one does not grasp the full force or resonance of the word. At the same time, a word like manyak with its independent Arabic (cocksucker) and English (maniac) origins became totally confused in Hebrew speech and has been used in both senses, sometimes with the (inexplicable) force that the British “bloody” had fifty years ago and therefore not heard in polite society, and sometimes with far less sting for someone acting in a crazy or outrageous way. I would guess that the word was first used in the Arabic sense by Oriental Jews and then picked up by Ashkenazi Jews in the mistaken belief that it derived from the English word. […]

It is also not surprising that the mass immigration from the Former Soviet Union in the 1990s has had no impact on Hebrew slang, or on the face of the country as such. The old Russian standbys remain in place (kibinimat, yoptfoyomat) but there is no interaction between the two languages. Like American immigrants, the Russians consider their own culture superior to Israeli culture so that while assimilating economically they are less interested in assimilating culturally and socially. On the other hand, their Israeli-born children, though retaining the Russian language and some of the culture, aspire to, and succeed in, assimilating totally in the Israeli milieu, like the second generation of Jews in America. (What is almost comical, by the way, is that Ethiopian children living in mixed immigrant neighborhoods, as in Petach Tikva, now curse in Russian.)

I love the double origin of manyak, and the fact that Ethiopian children curse in Russian. Thanks, Andy!


  1. Huh. I’m a native speaker and I had no idea about the double origin of manyak: I figured it was a straight-up borrowing of maniac which had undergone some pejoration. I remember my first-grade teacher berating a kid who’d used the word and telling him he’d “said the worst word in the Hebrew language”, which puzzled me at the time. (I think I went home and asked my mom about it and was told it meant “crazy”, which didn’t seem so bad.) Thirty years later the mystery is solved. There’s an interesting thread about the word here. I wouldn’t say it’s “used in both senses”: it usually means something close to “jerk” or “asshole”, without any implication of mental deficiency.

    The article is a bit slipshod, especially about transliteration — why fack but focking when the vowel is the same? And why can’t he make up his mind whether to use kh or ch for [x]? But it’s an interesting read nevertheless.

  2. SFReader says

    Fine example of Russian Israeli speech


  3. why fack but focking when the vowel is the same?

    And why ck in either one?

  4. George Gibbard says

    In the link TR supplied one person asserts that the Arabic is really “manyuk” / “mnayek”, while others assert that manyak also exists. Meanwhile manaayek is asserted to be the plural of manyak.

    Form the perspective of Classical Arabic, manyuuk should be a vernacular variant of maniik, the passive participle of naaka ‘he fucked’; munayyak could be the passive participle of the intensive. manyak could be a vernacular variant of manaak ‘place of fucking’. Meanwhile manaayik / classical manaaʔik should be the plural of manaak(/manyak), while manyuuk could have the plural manaayiik. I don’t know whether classical maniik should have the plural manaaʔik (derived from the surface form where y has disappeared) or manaaʔiik (derived from the underlying form with y before uu).

    In my home town, the Nectarine Ballroom (a dance club) changed its name to Necto, which my Saudi friend told me means “I fucked him” in Arabic.

  5. I think of manyak as something like ‘perv’ in English, i.e. something sexual and disapproved of.

    The two volumes of the Ben Yehuda–Ben Amotz slang dictionary (1982) gives the following, loosely translated: 1. Obsessed with one thing [like a hobby]; “About nature preserves, he’s a total maniac.” 2. Oversexed (derogatorily); “Fucking is all he ever thinks about, that maniac!” 3. Homosexual. “Every Friday night he goes to Independence Park, to the maniacs.” 4. Clever, sly [≈ English ‘bastard’]; “That maniac got an A- on the test without ever studying.”

    The same dictionary also gives Ya Manayek, with the Arabic vocative particle. I don’t know if the pronunciation has anything to do with Arabic or if it’s a playful spelling pronunciation. I’ve never heard it. The meanings given are 1. (military) Said after mentioning a long stretch of time which is about to end; “I get released in 129 days, ya manayek!” 2. Affectionately ascribing to a person sexual appetite or cleverness; “I am not bringing my sister to your party, ya manayek!

    And of course, there’s the ever-popular axul manyuk ( < Arabic 'maniac's brother'), 'someone clever or sly', but especially 'great, awesome'; the second volume of the dictionary was titled "An axul manyuki Dictionary of Spoken Hebrew”.

    The dictionary was compiled by Netiva Ben-Yehuda (no relation to the other B-Y) and Dan Ben-Amotz, two salty bohemians with no love for academic stuffiness. As such it was groundbreaking in its time, and more complete than anything else. Nevertheless, it is 30 years old, a long time for slang dictionaries. TR’s meaning ‘asshole’ also appears in some net dictionaries, but not in BY-BA.

    This skit by Shalom Asayag (in Hebrew) talks about manyak “someone who isn’t OK”; manayek ‘snitch’; minayek “a bit of a snitch and a bit of a piece of shit”; mitnayek, “someone who became a minayek“; and the “nice” manyuk, and his brother, axul manyuk. Some of these must be riffs on the original, as beautiful and as fleeting as wildflowers.

  6. George Gibbard says

    Classical Arabic broken plurals with epenthetic ʔ must originally be hypercorrections for y.

  7. The last paragraph regarding Russian is false. As the example shared by SFReader may suggest, Blyat and Suka (and others) have become more or less commonplace in Hebrew slang, and only since the ’90s.

  8. I notice that he avoids the question of whether to use “Sephardic” or “Mizrahi” by calling them “Oriental Jews”—which seems to be to be the worst choice I’ve yet encountered.

  9. Oriental and Mizrahi both literally means ‘eastern’. Israeli usage of the English word oriental has not caught on to the connotations of the word elsewhere. ‘Oriental’ appears on restaurant signs and in reference to Mizrahi jews in tourist literature; this widespread usage often startles or confuses visiting anglophones.

  10. @SFReader,

    >Fine example of Russian Israeli speech

    That clip ties in nicely, as the last thing the Russian guard says to the driver is “Lekh tizdayen b’tachet, manyak!” (Go f*ck yourself in the a**, manyak) sort of implying the Arabic etymology…

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    I readily forgive the foolish generalisations about UK slang in exchange for the highly quotable generalisation

    “The natural tendency of the journalist is to speak and write in platitudes”

    (think in platitudes, come to that.)

    I like “vus-vus” for “Ashkenazi Jew.” Please, please let it be derived from a supposed tendency of of newly arrived Ashkenazis to wander round saying “Vus? Vus?”

  12. It’s vuzvuz, and yes, that’s exactly where it comes from.
    I just read Skolnik’s article now. There are lots of other interesting and/or funny etymologies there.

  13. My sense of the meaning of manyak is different from Y’s and from that of the slang dictionary. To me it’s a general word for someone you dislike or disapprove of, who behaves in a mean or antisocial way, etc. Someone who cuts you off in traffic is a manyak. There’s nothing sexual about it. The only one of the dictionary definitions that makes sense to me is the last (“clever, sly”), but only by extension, just like you might say “That son of a bitch got an A on the test without even studying”.

    Ya menayek (which is how I’d spell it) sounds completely familiar to me, but I’m actually not sure I know what it means. I have it pegged as a kind of all-purpose exclamation of annoyance, but I could be wrong. I don’t use it myself (as opposed to manyak).

  14. TR, I guess you’ve lived in Israel more recently than me; my sense of things is relatively archaic.

    When I get the chance, I’ll see what Rosental’s dictionary says.

  15. The bit that interested me most was right at the end: the disappearance of initial /h/ in Israeli Hebrew. Does anyone know more about this?

  16. Yeah, I thought that was interesting too. A classic sound change in a new venue!

  17. Our friend internet to the rescue: I looked up ‘definition maniac’ (in Hebrew) and came upon a couple of forums where this very question is asked and answered.

    At one site, aimed at teenagers, the answers (from 2013) are “sly, clever”; “a bad person”; “the kind who makes out with every girl and a bad person”; “a maniac is a bastard [‘clever, sly’, I think] or messed up [מופרע]”; “a. makes fun of others when he/she is winning. b. tries to trip you up. c. not willing to help without getting something out of it, and then too you risk a knife in your back.”

    At the other site, under the topic of “a lawyer has to be a maniac” (2009), one answer is especially clear: “Takes advantage of the niceness or weakness of others, thinks only of himself, doesn’t play by the rules when it’s to his advantage, shamelessly lies when it benefits him, deceives and even cheats to gain advantage, without honesty or integrity, uses others for his purposes.”

    To me, these qualities fall under ben zona, ‘son of a whore’. TR, are the two more or less synonyms to you?

  18. >The bit that interested me most was right at the end: the disappearance of initial /h/ in Israeli Hebrew. Does anyone know more about this?

    I am not sure about native speakers, but I found that reading transliterations of Hebrew by Russian immigrants, they all drop the h. So they will write Rosh Ashana instead of Rosh HaShana… I don’t know if this is just a side effect of no letter/sound for h in Russian or if they actually pronounce the Hebrew like they write it in transliteration…

  19. Hebrew h>ʔ is not just word-initial. Some people pronounce the h’s, some don’t. I first noticed this in the late 1970s, but it’s become much more prevalent since, in all walks of life, and (if I remember right) even in news broadcasts.

  20. The loss of initial /h/ in conversational Hebrew certainly occurs in the speech of some American Jews as well. It’s not common, but neither is it particularly new. I can recall examples back into the 1980s. I don’t know whether this was a direct result of Israeli influence or not. Nor could I say whether the initial /h/ was preserved in more careful (liturgical) speech.

  21. On a related note, I’ve been listening to some Meir Ariel songs ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ar7l7Ja-3j0) , and found that he rolls his R’s in Hebrew. At first I assumed that he spoke with a Mizrachi accent, since they seem to pronounce their R’s like Arabs. But it turns out that he is a native Sabra. I’ve never heard another Sabra pronounce R’s this way. Am I wrong?

  22. Well, now I am confused. Here Meir Ariel is speaking and he is using the normal gutteral R.

    But Jerusalem of Iron (from my previous comment) is not the only song where he rolls his R. For example, Terminal Luminelt.

    Actually, it seems like once he actually starts singing, he starts rolling his R’s again. Maybe it’s some weird artistic affectation…

  23. I long ago noticed the disappearance of initial /h/ in spoken Hebrew, though I don’t know its cause.

    Fred Skolnik mentions ‘kafeh hafuch (cappuccino, latte).’ Back in 2007, the recently retired Philologos at The Forward devoted a column to this term, which he calls “upside down coffee” (a literal translation) and traces it to the German expression “verkehrte Kaffee,” which gets a quite respectable 600K ghits, including to a Wiki.de entry whose English counterpart is titled Café au lait.

  24. Skolnik also says that chara (shit) חרא is from Arabic. Klein finds cognates in Syriac, Aramaic and Arabic; BDB adds Amharic and Mandaic cognates. Modern Hebrew may indeed have borrowed it from Arabic, but the word also appears in 2 Kings 6:25, 2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12.

  25. Y, those definitions pretty much capture my idea of a manyak, yes. And it’s pretty much synonymous with ben zona (at least, in one of the latter’s senses — ben zona can also be strongly positive, although then it’s usually accented as a single word benzona with initial stress). In fact manyak ben zona is a natural extension of manyak.

  26. As for the loss of h, as Y implies, this is really a merger of h with glottal stop, which itself is often dropped. But with some speakers (my sister, in her twenties, is one) you hear a very pronounced [ʔ] in place of the [h].

    Rolled r is or used to be a feature of the old-fashioned prescriptivist pronunciation of Hebrew — I associate it with news anchors etc., though I’m not sure how widespread it is these days. It was definitely expected of anyone who wanted to be on the radio, including singers such as Meir Ariel, until sometime in the 1980s or so, I’d say.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Lewis Glinert’s 1989 “The Grammar of Modern Hebrew” has zero as the informal reflex of ה

  28. Maybe someone has already said this, but the only meaning I’ve ever used or heard for “mányak” is “jerk” or “bastard”. It’s sometimes used jokingly among friends, who will call each other manyaks, a little similar to the use of bastard in English. Manáyek and manyúk are also used as variants of manyak, though manayek is, I think, originally the Arabic plural form.

    My mother told me that when she first came to Israel they told her not to say manyak in public, and that it has sexual connotations, but in my generation (I’m in my early 20’s) the sexual connotation is gone, and people say it to each other all the time.

    And “fucking” is not perceived as particularly strong, in my opinion. You can hear people saying it everywhere, even on prime-time television and tv shows aimed at teenagers.

  29. The disappearance of /h/ is extremely prevalent, and indeed not only word-initial. As a case in point, consider מהמם mehammem “astonishing” which is a very popular enhancement adjective. The colloquial /me-a-mem/ has so taken over that its “official” txtspelling is 100מם, using the pronunciation of 100 מאה as /me-a/ for part of the word, following English’s gr8 and a4mentioned (what, that’s not a thing?).

  30. I’ve thought a lot about the pronunciation of ה in Israeli Hebrew. A friend of mine with a background in linguistics (himself a quasi-native speaker) told me it’s not silent; it’s voiced. There is some truth to this, but the frequent confusion of ה with letters connoting (dropped) glottal stops undermines this.

    As to the origin of the silencing of ה, it is tempting to look to Yiddish, but the only kind of Yiddish that has this is Southeastern (Ukrainian) Yiddish, which was spoken by a minority of Yiddish speakers. Further, in Yiddish this is only word-initial, whereas, as Yuval notes, in Israeli Hebrew it’s complete.

  31. I looked at Rosental’s slang dictionary. It only has the ‘jerk’ sense, going back to the early 1970s, not the ‘perv’ sense. This surprised me, because I’d supposed his dictionary would include everything in the BY-BA and other earlier dictionaries.
    manyuk, it says, is the Arabic passive, i.e. ‘fucked’, and also something like ‘fucked up’, referring to a person.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Actually, it seems like once he actually starts singing, he starts rolling his R’s again. Maybe it’s some weird artistic affectation…

    FWIW, Rammstein do this to sound more badass.

  33. Several decades ago I lived on a kibbutz for a time, where I worked in the garage. Here are a few words I found amusing. I have no idea if these were localized or generally used throughout Israel.

    (1) The kibbutz vehicles had headlights whose bulbs had the brandname “shieldbeam.” The masculine plural in Hebrew is formed with the suffix “eem.” Headlights on the kibbutz were generically referred to as “sheelbeem,” and a a single headlight was a “sheelb.”

    (2) Farm tractors have a shaft connected to the motor that, when engaged, rotates and drives equipment attached to the tractor (e.g., a mower). This mechanism is called a power-take-off, or PTO. On the kibbutz, it was pronounced as if it were of Russian origin – a “partakoff.”

    (3) Instant coffee, heavily sweetened, was very popular. The most common brand was Nescafe. In Hebrew, “nes” means miracle, and the kibbutz members generally referred to instant coffee as “cafe nes” – miracle coffee.

  34. Liat Suvorov says

    1. I, and most other Israelis I know, use the word Manyak as to describe someone that in American English would be described as a S.O.B. ( Son of a Bitch).
    2. The word Mat in Russian means mother. It what comes before it that makes is crude. Yobtfuyumat means something like “I fucked your mom”. In Hebrew we would use the ARABIC curse “Kus emac” (literally “your mother’s cunt” the same way we use yobtfuyumat.
    I think the reason we use Arabic and Russian and some other languages curse words in Israel as opposed to Hebrew curse words, is that curse words in Hebrew are scarce and very boring.
    The worst curse words I can think of in Hebrew are Ben Zona (S.O.B) and Lech Tizdayen (go fuck yourself). Others, that do not have a sexual context, are Metumtam, idiot, Tipesh (dumb, idiot, stupid).
    It is really not much to use when you are furious and want to say something REALLY offensive and volgar.

  35. Liat Suvorov says

    The rolling of the R in singing: I do it sometimes too, not all the times. I never thought about it, as for why and I do it or not.
    Pursuant to this discussion, I’m trying to figure it out.
    I noticed that:
    1. I do it more with older songs either than contemporary songs. An Aviv Gefen song would sound odd with the rolling R comparing to the Israeli “throaty” R. A Naomi Shemer R sounds just right with the rolling R.
    2. When R is the first letter of the word or when a word that ends with R is followed by a word that begins with R, it is difficult to sing it with Israeli R, it sounds almost like the French R.
    3. If I sing for an audiance I am more likely to use a rolling R.
    4. When I sang in choirs we always used rolling R.
    5. If the song feels more “upscale” or more formal, I tend to use the rolling R.

  36. The word Mat in Russian means mother. It what comes before it that makes is crude.

    Just to be clear, you’re talking about the word мать [mat’] ‘mother,’ with palatalized final t; there’s also the word мат [mat], with nonpalatalized final t, which means ‘bad language, cursing,’ and which probably has no etymological relation to the former; see this LH post.

  37. The rolling of the R in singing

    Thanks, that’s an extraordinarily interesting analysis!


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