by Mark L. Levinson
Everyone has two businesses: his own business and show business. Lexicographer Barry Popik calls that “one of the oldest entertainment sayings,” termed an “old wheeze” already in 1937 (although Google doesn’t show much recent use of it). I guess today everybody has his own business and the smartphone business.
Popik quotes Eddie Cantor’s illustration:
Every person I have ever met has two businesses— his and show business. I’ve had the boy who delivers the groceries to my house in Beverley Hills say, “Heard your show last night, Eddie... a little off on the timing, weren’t you?” You see what I mean?
But the divide between real life and show business is slippery. Shakespeare wrote that all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. Fred Ebb wrote that life is a cabaret. Language expert Ruvik Rosenthal notes in his Lexicon of Life (הלקסיקון של החיים) that the scale has shrunk: if there was a romantic involvement between two people, we used to say they had a סיפור sipur going on — a story. Now our slang says that they have a קטע keta. It’s all I can do to refrain from writing ketta with a double T, because that’s closer to how it’s pronounced, but the word is covered as “keta” on other people’s pages.
A keta is just an episode in a story. Or in the physical sense, it’s a segment, such as a stretch of road. As Shoshana Kordova notes in Haaretz, it can be an extract or clip from a movie. She continues:
… it seems plausible that keta’s function as a descriptor of the big- and small-screen worlds of simulated reality is what presaged its colloquial use to describe episodes of actual reality.
The slang use of keta generally refers to an embarrassing, funny, strange, coincidental or otherwise memorable incident that becomes part of a story you tell your friends – to which they respond “Eizeh keta!” (“What a keta!”). Depending on the circumstances, this can encompass a variety of meanings, like “How funny!” or “How weird!” or, more generally, “What a story!” Sometimes, it simply means “Wow!”
Sometimes the plural is used, as when some friends are recalling the fun they used to have together. As the laughter subsides, one of them may well say “Keta’im!” (or Eizeh keta’im!”). In that context, the meaning is something akin to “Good times!”
In that positive sense, Morfix.com considers that a keta could be translated as a “riot.”
Rosenthal, on his website, notes that not only have Hebrew-speakers referred to a real-life occurrence as a story or a keta (episode) for decades, but more recently may they also call it a seret (movie). The term seret carries the implication that the occurrence is unlike everyday reality. He sees the three concepts as “stylized reality” in different forms: “The event’s description is conceived like fiction, like part of a creative work.” In specific, “Keta means that the event could serve as part of a story, play, or film, and that it has a beginning, an end, and internal drama.” (I’ve translated those sentences from the Hebrew.) An event fit to be framed as an anecdote.
More than one source, when citing examples, finds it appropriate to speak of a coincidence. The Citizen Café site says:
Don’t find yourself lacking words when you inevitably bump into an old friend at AM:PM. Smile politely and say ‘eizeh keta’ aka ‘what a coincidence,’ before going your separate ways. The great things about these phrases are that a simple change of facial expression can alter their meaning. ‘Eizeh keta’ can also be used to exclaim, ‘how funny,’ ‘how weird,’ ‘how strange,’ or ‘how embarrassing.’
For a non-coincidence — a wild boar knocking over a café table, a boss firing the wrong person by mistake — “what an episode” expresses the meaning well but it isn’t colloquial and I don’t think it would make anyone think of a TV or film-franchise episode.
Of my print dictionaries, only Oxford (by Ya’acov Levy) acknowledges the show-biz meaning of keta, calling it a performer’s “number.” Viewing life as a cabaret, we may ask when someone behaves strangely “What is his keta?” — that is to say, his item on the program. His routine, his gag, his schtick, his spot, his bit, his piece, his act, his stunt, his stuff, his trick.
Guy Sharett, on his StreetWise Hebrew site, translates “What’s her keta?” as “What’s her deal?” (He could have said “What’s with her?” or “What’s she up to?” or even “What’s her problem?”) Another example of Sharett’s is עשה לי קטע מסריח, he played a dirty trick (keta masriach) on me. Reverso.com has a similar sentence with a different translation: “You did a good number on me.” And it notes that asking what’s your keta can be asking what’s your “game.”
Reverso.com has several instances of the negative — shoom keta — meaning there’s “no angle,” nothing’s going on, there’s nothing beneath the surface.
Your keta can be your attitude. A person can make a remark that’s intended b’keta tov (in a good way) or b’keta ra (in a mean way), Sharett observes.
A person’s keta, Sharett notes, may be a lifestyle preference. “He’s into guys” would be “הוא בקטע של בנים” — he’s in a guy keta. If you’re not in the mood (for whatever) you can say you’re not in the keta. In my day we would have said that “it’s not my scene.” A keta can be a “scene” in that 1960s sense, as well as in the simple sense of a scene from a film.
Reverso.com lists thousands of occurrences for keta, as slang and otherwise, in its corpus of translations. Many are translations of “thing,” for example “You think dad and Ellen ever had a thing?” and “Clark has this thing for telescopes.” Suitable English slang for a keta that’s an overwhelming liking is “fever,” as in “sudoku fever.” A keta can also be a “phase” you go through. Reverso includes “fever” and “phase” too.
And Reverso observes that to have a keta with somebody can also be to “hook up.” Or to have a “fling,” although to me that sounds a little antique.
Whatever all these uses of keta may say about our lives as vaudeville, or as short subjects, they certainly resist consistent translation. If you are in the keta, you are encouraged to add your own observations below concerning the word. If you’d like to suggest a different word or phrase for discussion, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org . An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.