Translatable but Debatable – ביצבץ bitzbetz

by Mark L. Levinson

“I was out fleeing some robots,” says a character in Futurama, “and the silvery moonlight glinting off their bloody claws made me think of you.” The moonlight that “glinted” in English בצבץ (bitzbetz) in the Hebrew subtitles as cited at  The sound of the Hebrew word invokes a sort of sputtering flicker — a repetitive, perhaps weak or tentative attempt to come into view. 

There’s a problem, though.  It seems that properly speaking, something that bitzbetz can’t be bouncing off like a gleam of moonlight.  It has to come out from within.  Ya’cov Levy’s Oxford dictionary says “break out (sweat, etc.), burst forth, emerge.”

The Even Shoshan dictionary provides two instances from the Talmud — blood (הָיָה דָם מְבַצְבֵּץ וְיוֹצֵא) and plants (הָיוּ מְבַצְבְּצִים וְיוֹצְאִין כְּעֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה).  In both cases, the verb is coupled with יצא (yatza, to come out), so that we can understand bitzbetz as being less than, or preparatory to, coming fully out.  A more modern quotation, from Mendele Mocher Sforim, retains the pairing of bitzbetz and yatza, with reference to sweating: וְטִפּוֹת גַּסּוֹת שֶׁל זֵעָה מְבַצְבְּצוֹת וְיוֹצְאוֹת עַל פְּנֵיהֶם 

Thus Danby & Segal’s dictionary for Dvir defines bitzbetz as “ooze, percolate” — as well as “sprout” for the plants. Alcalay includes “seepage.”

Later, Bialik and Agnon use bizbetz without yatza, in ways that Even Shoshan calls borrowings. Bialik writes of questions we have that disappear and m’vatzb’tzot, disappear and m’vatzb’tzot,” perhaps picking up on the repetitive consonants of the verb.  Agnon writes of a sadness that bitzb’tzah on a person’s face. 

Amusingly, the subtitler of The Simpsons rendered the words “Bartholomew Simpson wantonly egged this town” into Hebrew as “Bartholomew Simpson, with malice aforethought, bitzbetz this town,” giving the verb an entirely new meaning based on the Hebrew word for “egg,” beitza.  But even in the classical meaning of a preliminary emergence, we can imagine an association — unscientific though it may be — with an egg making its way out of a chicken.

Among the definitions at Morfix is “poke out.”  The Wellisch online dictionary notes that the Hebrew is also used for an outcrop — a bit of exposed rock peering from the soil — and it lists “peer” as a possible translation.

On second thought, considering the older usage of bitzbetz for oozing blood and sweat, maybe a better sound-based association than the egg is botz (mud).

For plants and such, Alcalay has “burst forth,” “sprout,” “burgeon,” “shoot (buds),” and “burgeon.” 

Alcalay also lists “bubble,” and Reverso provides an example of that:  “the song kind of bubbled back up in his brain” is translated into Hebrew as “השיר איכשהו בצבץ ועלה חזרה מעלה במוחו” — the song somehow bitzbetz and rose back upward in his mind.  The translator seems to have thought to couple bitzbetz with a second verb, in elegant imitation of the Talmud.

Shachter’s dictionary acknowledges that today bitzbetz can simply mean “make a sudden appearance.”  Wellisch includes “crop up.”  Reverso includes “sticking out,” and “overshooting” as in the case of someone who cut his pockets away “’cause they were overshooting the bottom of my shorts.”

So with time, the verb — apparently starting out with the meaning of a subtle welling up from within — has taken on the popular meaning of protruding into visibility, whether slightly and gradually or boldly and suddenly.

If any relevant thoughts bitzb’tzu as you read this article, you’re welcome to comment in the space below. If there’s another word or phrase that you believe deserves a column, please write to me at . An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.