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Hebrew Words to Describe People

millie O&M David C. Simpson

This entry is dedicated to peachuk and to the memory of her late husband - John Stephen Hearn, who passed away recently. Thanks to Altreus from IRC who copy-edited this entry.

Before I start with the regular entry, I'd like to note that I went biking through Park Hayarkon (a variation on my usual ride) recently, took many photos and Flickr'ed the good ones. They are all Public Domain, but if you like them or use them, then an attribution or a donation would be appreciated. Well, on we go.

This time in "A Moment of Hebrew" I will cover the various words used to describe people (= men and women) in Hebrew. I decided that from now on, I will also link to the English Wiktionary entries of the words I'm discussing and possibly create an entry or complement the existing one.

I should note that as opposed to English, Hebrew is fully gender-aware: all nouns, including objects are either male or female, whether in singular or in plural. So let's go.

Male - Zakhar (זכר) and Female - Neqevah (נקבה)

Zakhar and Neqevah are the names of the genders. So we can say that a "Hatulah hi Hatul mimin neqevah" which means that "A Catess (;-)) is a cat of the gender 'female'". Some animals are actually primarily female like "Anafah" (= Heron), or "Dayah" (= Milvus), in which case you need "Anafah mimin Zakhar" (= a male Heron).

"Zakhar" comes from "Remembered", which may be because the ancient Semites recalled who their male ancestors were (as is apparent in the "X Begot Y" sections of the Old Testament), and didn't care too much about most of their female ancestors. I was told "Neqevah" comes from "Niqbah" which means a "hole", a "cave" or a "shaft" in Hebrew. (Why it is the case, is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Note that the semantics and connotations of "male" and "female" are very different from English. In "Scent of a Woman" the boy describes a beautiful young woman sitting by (played by Gabrielle Anwar) as "a female". Al Pacino understands that he used it on purpose instead of saying "a girl" or "a woman". However, if you call a girl a "neqevah" in Hebrew, she will be heavily it's offended. It's something like "doll" in English, or even more offensive. It's something Israelis of low culture use to describe women, while knowing it is derogatory.

I didn't hear the word "Zakhar" used for "a man" in a similar fashion to the English "a male".

Ish (איש) - Man/Person, Ishah (אישה) - Woman, Gever (גבר) - Man

"Ish" means more like Person, and Gever is more like man as in manly or male-like. Like "Akhlah Gever" - "one hell of of a man". Or "Eizeh Gever!" - "What a man!". Ishah means "a woman", but again, it may be a bit derogatory in certain contexts. Once on a scouting group tour, a kid who joined us called one of my female peers an "Ishah" and she said that while she technically was one, it was still derogatory to call her that. A male teenager will also object to being called "Ish" or "Gever".

Son, Boy, Guy - Ben - (בן) and Daughter, Girl, Gal - Bath (בת)

While Ben and Bath essentially mean "Son" and "Daughter", they have become to also mean "Boy" (as in Boyfriend, "or I'm going to the beach to catch some boys".) and "Girl" as in "The girls went to work." - "Habanoth [= the girls] halkho la3avodah" (where the "3" is an Ayin). The meaning is a bit derogatory, but not enough for it to matter in everyday speech.

Note that there's a slang term for "Banoth" (= girls) called "Bananoth" which means "Bananas" in Hebrew. My female cousin once used "Bananim" (a play on "Banim") too. This is considered rather old-fashioned in Hebrew, but may become retro.

ילד - Yeled - a male child and ילדה - Yaldah - a female child

Here we start deviating from English. In Hebrew, "boy"/"guy" and "girl" have many different translations. Yeled means a male child or a boy, and Yaldah means a female child. Note that children and adolscents up to high school still call their peers like this. If a 16-18 years-old will say "Pagashti Bahurah Babar" (= I met a "bahurah" (see below), a female guy in the Bar) he is likely to be boasting to his fellows about meeting an older woman. (Similarly, when swapping genders.) On the other hand saying "Pagashti Yaldah Babar" - I met a girl in the Bar would imply he met someone of his age.

נער - Na3ar and נערה - Na3arah

This also means boy and girl but this time older, normally an adolescent or teenager. Note that adolescents are likely to refer to themselves and their peers as "Yeled" and "Yaldah". It also means a young lover (male or female), or a young underling (for the masculine form) or a maid (for the feminine form). In 2nd Samuel 2, they say "Yaqumo Na Ha'ne3arim we'Yesahaqu Lefaneino", which means "May the boys rise and play (= fight games) in front of us". This is like a corporate manager, or an army officer is likely to refer to his underlings as "my boys", or like in the movie Speed, where the Lutenant refers to one of his officers as "my boy, Jack".

עלם - 3elem - "he-damsel" and עלמה - 3almah - damsel

3elem (with an Ayin) means a young man in Hebrew, and 3almah (which is its feminine form) means a young woman - a damsel, a maiden, etc. I'm not aware of a good English translation to 3elem, which is unique in Hebrew.

In modern Hebrew these words are considered a little high, but still OK for most everyday use. An 3elem or 3almah are somewhat older than a Na3ar or Na3arah, already mature, but stil young. Some anecdotes:

  • The Hebrew translation for "Miss Smith" is "Ha'3almah Smith" = "the Damsel Smith". It's not often used in Israel, but you can see it in translations from European languages.

  • In Isiah 7, 14 Isiah says, "And here the '3almah' get pregnant and bears a son and you shall name him '3immanu'el' [= god is with us]". Now, until a few decades ago, the Catholic Church's Latin translation of it read "And here the (female) virgin gets preganant and bears a child", instead of "And here the damsel gets pregnant and bears a child".

    This was mis-translated to correspond to the reports in the New Testament that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin woman. It was recently corrected in the official translation.

  • There used to be (maybe there still is) a publication for teenage-oriented Romantic novels called "3almah".

בחור - Bahur - "guy" and בחורה - Bahurah - "girl" or "gal"

בחור originally meant a Yeshivah student (comes from "chosen" or "selected"), but it came to mean a "guy" in more recent Hebrew. Like "Bahur ehad me'ha'avudah sheli" - "this guy from (my) work.". "Behurah" is its feminine form ("girl", "gal", "bird", etc.), and as opposed to the English "girl", which may be considered derogatory (at least according to some Feminazis) - it's not derogatory in Hebrew.

Like I said previously, it's a term mostly used by people above high-school. Note that in Hebrew in order to say "my co-worker told me about her parents", you'll often say "Mishehi me'havodah sheli sipra li al Hahorim shelah", which means "someone from Work told me about her parents.". Or "A Bahorah from work". That's because saying "Haverthi la'3avodah"/"Haveri La'3avodah" (my co-worker) is more unweildy and less natural for a Hebrew speaker.

Conclusion

I think the entry is getting very long as it is, and I've covered most of the important words. As can be seen, there are many words to describe people in Hebrew, and to me it seems it is much more rich in this regard than English is.

P.S: some more photos, this time from two days ago - not all of them have been uploaded yet.

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