by Mark L. Levinson
Before getting down to business — which is, as usual, Hebrew-to-English translation — I’d like to cross the looking glass and register an admonition about an English-to-Hebrew phrase I’ve been hearing the past few weeks. All through the run-up to the US elections, Israeli commentators talked about the medinot mitnadn’dot מדינות מתנדנדות, which would be the wavering or wobbling states. Maybe some states were wavering or wobbling, but the phrase the commentators were trying to translate was obviously “swing states.” Albeit a playground swing in Hebrew is a nadneda נדנדה, a swing state is not necessarily a state that swings back and forth with every poll, nor even with every election or two; it’s any state that stands to swing the election — in the sense of tipping the national scale to one side or the other. The relevant definition from Merriam-Webster is “to influence decisively <swing a lot of votes>.” The state can do so even if it’s been holding steady for a long time. It could be steady at 49% versus 49%, for example. So these would more properly be medinot machri’ot מדינות מכריעות (decisive states) or medinot shovrei shivyon מדינות שוברי-שויון (tiebreaker states).
And now, implying no connection at all to the elections, I’d like to mention the influence of the word m’gukhach מגוחך, meaning “ridiculous.”
The Even Shoshan dictionary cites the verb form gakhach גחך (now unused, as far as I know) as far back as the Talmud, and it cites Bialik as using both gakhach and the currently more widespread gikhech גיחך. It says that they mean to laugh lightly or to smile. The implication of considering something to be ridiculous doesn’t seem to be there.
As the participle m’gukhach comes into its own as an adjective, though, it doesn’t include raising a smile or a laugh by being clever or ironic or delightful. It means, according to the Seadict online dictionary, “ridiculous, stupid, nonsensical, absurd, farcical, funny, grotesque, highfalutin, laughable, lout, loutish, ludicrous, mawkish, outrageous, preposterous, bathetic, camp, derisible, derisive, der." Apparently the lexicographer ran out of space before finishing “derisory.” From that list, I’d delete “highfalutin,” “bathetic,” and maybe a few others that I think describe not the trait itself but some other trait that underlies it. If someone says a novel is m’gukhach, without further explanation, you’d never guess that the novel is ridiculous on account of being bathetic, rather than, for example, ridiculous on account of containing scientific errors.
The triplets “derisible,” “derisive,” and “derisory” all come from the same Latin root as “ridiculous” itself, and all literally mean “laughable,” but they’ve taken a downhill slide that the English word “laughable” hasn’t quite taken. You can use the word “laughable” negatively — saying, for example, that the local theater’s production of Hamlet is laughable. But you can also use it positively; saying that a production of The Odd Couple is laughable doesn’t mean that it’s ridiculous. Or m’gukhach.
For a comparatively early use of the adjective m’gukhach, Even Shoshan cites Brenner. There are also citations from classic writers of the Zionist era for the variations nitgakhekh נתגחך (became a laughing stock) and higkhich הגחיך (treated something as humorous, or made a humorous or ridiculous impression).
All the variations apparently cast their shadow back on the verb gikhech so that the more recent the dictionary, the more likely it is to define gikhech not merely as smiling or laughing but as ridicule. Among the definitions, the Bantam Megiddo dictionary includes “smirk,” and Oxford says “to giggle, chuckle (derisively).” The corpus at Reverso has “sneer” and, oddly, “scough.” A misspelling of “scoff” is the only explanation I can think of for that one.
In English, that snide superciliousness tends to be conveyed with S words-- sneer, scoff, snigger, scorn. To the ear, gikhekh makes a very different impression. It sounds like a gurgling cackle; I think Oxford’s use of “chuckle (derisively)” was apt although it’s more elegant to define one word with one word than with two. Several dictionaries agree with Oxford that “giggle” is appropriate, but I think that a derisive giggle is something you seldom hear from anyone but villainous TV puppets and cartoon characters. Maybe “snort” is a useful word; it’s from the S family, but it hints at some action back in the phlegmy regions.
As always, comments on the words in question are welcome in the space below. Other comments, including suggestions for further words or phrases to discuss, are welcome at email@example.com. And an index of words and phrases from previous columns is here.