by Mark L. Levinson
If a word has two meanings, but a second word also covers one of those meanings, then the second word will come to be used whenever it can and eventually the first word will be left with only one meaning. I think that’s a law of linguistics, and maybe it even has a name. If you know, please use the comment space at the bottom of the page to add the information.
The word נס (ness) in Hebrew means both “miracle” and “flag, or flagpole.” In his “Balashon” log, David Curwin writes:
I think we can see the development of nes from flag to miracle via an understanding of the word as "sign". These aren't just miracles for their own sake - they are trying to show something, to act as a sign.
So “flag” is the older of the meanings, but today who uses anything but degel to mean “flag”? When I was a newcomer and I heard the expression להעלות על נס, to raise something on a ness — as a proud banner — I didn’t know that a ness was a flag and I thought it had something to do with the reverence that we attach to a miracle. But now that I’ve been here for most of the 70-year history of the state, I’m not going to argue that there’s a big difference between the flag and a miracle.
Another place where the “flag” meaning leaves its mark is the verb להתנוסס (l’hitnossess), which means to become, or be, a presence as prominent and lofty as a flag that’s flying. In fact, the Galil dictionary (by Sivan & Levenston) isn’t alone in giving definitions such as “flutter” and “wave to and fro (flag).” I think maybe there’s a “clang” effect — an effect where similarity of sound creates or reinforces connotations — arising from the similarity to להתנופף (l’hitnofeff), which is also to flutter.
The word also sounds like להתנוצץ (l’hitnotzetz), which means to sparkle or shine, and the Alcalay dictionary says that l’hitnossess can mean that as well.
If in context l’hitnossess indeed refers to something flapping or fluttering high like a flag, or hovering, so much the better for the translation, because it’s hard to translate the concept of just sitting still up there. The Galil dictionary provides “be flaunted, be displayed,” but those are passive, and l’hitnossess is very much something that the thing does on its own. It stands forth dominantly, it commands attention; and not necessarily by fluttering. It can be a poster on a wall, or even a headline in a newspaper. The Galil dictionary includes a listing for כותרת מתנוססת (koterret mitnossesset), a “banner headline,” although the Hebrew expression has only a few dozen Google hits.
Sometimes there’s a good verb the translator can use because the thing is not simply located there already but being hoisted, climbing, rising or rearing up. Or maybe it’s overhanging or overshadowing something. Or looming, although in order to loom you have to be ominous. Nothing merry or benevolent ever looms.
The verb “tower” can be handy, but only if the thing itself is tall, rather than simply occupying a high location.
The verb “perch” or even "balance" can be handy, but only if the thing is free-standing like a villa on a cliff.
Looking through the examples at Reverso.net, I find other translations that strike me as lacking panache. A sign “hangs.” A name is simply “signed” on a document. The concept of l’hitnossess seems somehow as familiar as the Statue of Liberty commanding the harbor waters, but I don’t have a broadly useful translation. Is there one that’s escaped me? If so, or if you have some other comment on this family of words, please use the space below. If you’d like to suggest a different word or phrase for discussion, please write to me at email@example.com An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.