Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Map of a Euphemism

No two languages share a complete overlap of vocabularies. English, for example, doesn't have a word for the crucially important Hebrew word "dugri," which may actually have been imported from Arabic. Nor "chevre," which was imported from nowhere.

Hebrew, on the other hand, only recently invented a word for "accountability," and the invention is an unwieldy and unhelpful "achrayutiut," which sounds as bad in Hebrew as you think it does. Oddly, Hebrew also lacks a word for a universally common phenomenon: euphemism. We get along without the term, but we use the linguistic tool all the time, as you'd expect in society with officials, elected and otherwise, who are supposed to have accountability for stuff.

This isn't new. Today's document is, for a change, a map, and it's part of the same file we used yesterday, in which an aide to Ben Gurion collected documents about the mass immigration between 1949-53. (Those are the years of the file, not the immigration, which started earlier and kept on going.)

The map itself is considerably larger than the segments we've scanned. Dated April 26, 1949, it purports to show where the "Department of Transit Camps" proposed to build camps for 15,250 families. Most of them were to cluster around Haifa and Tel Aviv, the two sections we scanned. the euphemism, of course, is in the moniker of the camps. Transit sounds temporary, short-termed, and at least minimally comfortable; it raises the image of orderly wooden shacks, perhaps. It isn't the obvious word to depict large fields with tents in which entire families spend months or even a few years. Those we call, in Hebrew, maabarot, and while present day politicians like to take pride in their childhood years in them, their parents found little to like about them at the time.

Though, come to think of it, transit camps (machanot maavar) and maabarot are actually closely related words, both from the root a-v-r, to move.

Another point of interest about the map is how much has changed since 1949. Look at the map of Tel Aviv and the 18 proposed camps surrounding it. Lots of camps, in an area which was near the center and thus eased all sorts of logistical issues, but where there was lots of empty space. In 2013 (and also much earlier), that entire area, from Herzlia to Petach Tikva to Rishon Lezion, is all built up. It's all one single conurbation. Many of its denizens once lived in those maabarot. Or their grandparents did.


  1. For all practical purposes, Hebrew has a well-known word for euphemism, "sagi nahor" סגי נהור borrowed from Aramaic. The term is itself a euphemism: A blind person is referred to as someone who has "plentiful light" .

  2. Ephraim,

    Yes,and No. Yes, in that sagi nahor indeed covers reality by using the opposite words. No, in that there's no intention to confuse or deceive. Lashon Sagi Nahor stems from the wish not to use unclean language. Euphemisms, on the other hand, are an attempt to convince that reality isn't reality but rather its opposite.