Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday, we reveal what is really being said. To view all the entries in this series, click here.
Freudians see pistols as phallic symbols. Marines chant, “This is my rifle, this is my gun; this is for fighting, this is for fun.” But the Hebrew language takes the connection between sex and violence to the next level, joining the two in unholy linguistic matrimony.
The noun ziyun, meaning “arming” or “provision of weapons,” is also a coarse word for sex. Other words that share the root have a similar duality: “Zayin” is a slang word for “penis” but also means weapons; “lehizdayen” literally means “to be armed,” but if you wanted to tell someone to go do something anatomically impossible, you would say, “Lech tizdayen.”
This fecundity of meanings spawned some technology humor in 2006, just before the Microsoft Zune, a personal media player, came to Israel. At the time, some were asking whether the name really translates all that well into Hebrew. “We have yet to find an answer to the question of how to pronounce this word—Zoon, Zona [meaning “prostitute”], or perhaps Ziyun?” a technology reviewer wrote on Ynet. “Before they accuse us of ruining the youth, maybe it’s better if we stay on the safe side and call it Zion.”
But perhaps the form of the word ziyun that best lays bare the variety of interpretations is “mezuyan.” Talk about a “ma’avak [struggle] mezuyan”—as in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent statement that while failed talks with Israel may spark a third Intifada, he opposes any “armed struggle”—and no one will doubt that you’re referring to weapons. But mention “dor [generation] mezuyan” and the picture gets more complicated: You could be referring to the Hebrew title of Generation Kill, HBO’s seven-part miniseries about U.S. Marines in the first 40 days of the Iraq war; or you might be uttering the equivalent of a certain four-letter word, as in the best-known line of Israeli pop star Aviv Geffen’s chart-topping 1993 song “Ahshav Me’unan” (It’s Cloudy Now): “Anahnu dor mezuyan”—“We’re a fucked-up generation.”
As American feminists and others highlight the violent attitude toward women they say is evident in pornography, hip-hop, and the movies, Israel remains one step ahead in making the link explicit. Perhaps, as Freud might have speculated, it is the ubiquity of phallic symbol-toting soldiers that allows for the linguistic limbs of sex and violence to lie intertwined, and undisturbed, in the Hebrew language.