by Mark L. Levinson
As I’ve mentioned before, a word with two meanings tends to yield one of them to a different word if it can. Dictionaries define the Hebrew word m’chonen as a founder, establisher, or mechanic. Today the mechanic is a m’chonen only if he founded a legendary chain of auto shops; otherwise he’s a m’chona’i.
A webpage of language terms mentions that “words deteriorate in meaning” over time. It notes that “we have a tendency to dramatise and exaggerate — the net result is that words become weaker in meaning; e.g. thunderstruck, gutted.” I ran into another example on a page about an Israeli artist whose exhibitions overseas were described as אירועים בינלאומיים מכוננים. The adjective used — that same word m’chonen, defined in the dictionaries as “founding, establishing” — could more literally refer to the meeting at which an organization is set up. And of course it could refer to the founding of an artistic school or movement. But with no disrespect to the Israeli artist, obviously we’re dealing with language deterioration because no Israeli artist ever mounted several exhibits overseas that each started an international movement. Someone was trying to say in an impressive way that the exhibits were influential.
Poet Ora Nizar mentions a nursery rhyme that was m’chonen for her in the sense of initiating a way of thought that became part of her. In the rhyme, the sparrow is miserably cold because the winter rain has arrived, whereas the flowers are happy because it brings the prospect of growth. She writes that it “brought me to the realization that what’s great for some may be painful and distressing for others; that you can’t satisfy everyone at the same time. And that life and nature can be cruel unintentionally.”
A word in English resembling m’chonen is “seminal,” from the Latin semen meaning “seed.” A seminal event is one that begins something. The English word too has deteriorated to the point where sometimes it’s not much more than a fancy way of saying “important.” At Goodreads.com, for example, the list of seminal books understandably includes 1984, which gave our culture the terms for “Big Brother” and “doublethink” and established in our society, as a constant point of reference, a particular vivid specter of pervasive, abusive, and deceptive government. But the list also includes Watership Down, which presented the idea of an animal civilization to a culture that already had Bambi.
Although its meaning and its deterioration mirror the Hebrew word m’chonen, the word “seminal” has another problem, because although the Latin word semen carries the meaning of “seed” in the botanical sense, not everyone sees “seminal” that way. Ms. Brigitte, a blogger, writes: “it implies that the origin of a work is male, regardless of who wrote it.” According to another blogger, jennydavis, “the metaphor is downright vulgar. It evokes (at least for me) the image of some dude splooging his ideas all over everything.” She suggests “formative,” “foundational,” “groundbreaking,” “path blazing” (I wonder why not “trailblazing”), “influential,” “canonical,” and as a parting shot “ovulary (?).”
Despite the complaints, Google’s Ngram viewer shows no decline in popularity for the word “seminal.” On the contrary, the frequency of “seminal” in books has doubled since 1960. But some of us, particularly when a paycheck is involved, prefer not to write what offends people, even if only mistakenly sensitive people, when the offense is easily avoided.
Reverso.net provides some further translations for m’chonen. An irua m’chonen can be a “momentous event.” A rega m’chonen can be a “deciding” moment. Or “transformative.” Or “defining.”
If you have something to add on the topic of what’s m’chonen, please feel free to write your comment below. It doesn’t have to be a seminal comment, but it should be relevant to the particular word. If you’d like to suggest a different word for discussion here, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .