by Mark L. Levinson
On the one hand, I find podcasts irritating. The podcaster has to present the material slowly and repetitiously in order to compensate for moments of inattention from the listener. But the slowness and repetitiousness themselves cause my attention to wander and then I have to replay the very parts that bored me the most.
On the other hand, sometimes audio is helpful. For example, at LearningHebrew.net, a page tries to explain textually how to pronounce the Hebrew word סתם (stam). It rhymes with “mom,” the page says. But that’s not a rhyme where I come from. Where I come from, stam rhymes with “balm” (see US pronunciation) and “mom” rhymes with “bomb.” Better simply to hear the pronunciation.
Guy Sharett’s Streetwise Hebrew site provides a podcast that not only explains some meanings of stam, and pronounces it for you, but also demonstrates the vocal intonations used in various contexts. Most notable is the stam that means “I was only kidding.” But since I can’t cut and paste from a podcast, I’ll cut and paste from Shoshana Kordova’s take on stam in Haaretz:
Let’s say your Israeli colleague wants to pull your leg. When you get into the office your coworker, ever a kidder, announces that the computer system is down and no one will be able to do any work until the tech people fix it. He watches as you get excited (“Yes! I get to play hooky without having to take a sick day!”) or upset (“Now I’ll have to stay longer to finish the project I need to get done today!”), and then breaks in to let you know it was all a joke. The word he reaches for could well be “stam,” but in this context the “a” sound is usually drawn out, sounding something like “Staaaaaaaaaahm!”
Maybe that long, needling pronunciation is a word-killer. Although you can read in one place that “Israelis use the word ‘stam’ at every chance they get” (LearningHebrew.net.) elsewhere you can read that “its not a word you hear often. I (and others) use it 99% of the time as ‘Just Kidding’, but it is slang.” (Alonke, at Duolingo.com). Certainly at one time stam seemed to be tied with davka for #1 among the uniquely characteristic words of modern Hebrew. Dov Ben-Abba, in his Signet paperback dictionary, defines it as “for no obvious reason; just like that; devoid of any special meaning.”
On Quora,com, Ilana Halupovich writes that it means “‘mere’, trifling’, ‘unimportant’, ‘for no reason’, ‘nothing’. And more often than not, it’s a parasite word — something that can be ignored without missing any meaning.”
There seems to be a thread of etymology reaching all the way back to the Bible. In Genesis 26:15 Isaac finds that “all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them (satmoom), and filled them with earth.”
וכל הבארת אשר חפרו עבדי אביו בימי אברהם אביו — סתמום פלשתים וימלאום עפר
Satoom, the passive, is used for cryptic things that are withheld from understanding (like the קטעי ניבים סתומים in Rachel’s poem (פגישה חצי פגישה, figuratively blocked away from us like inaccessible well water. I suppose that from the idea of something that can’t be understood — or is “undefined, indefinite” as Danby & Segal say in their dictionary for Dvir Publishing — the word extended itself to circumstances where there is apparently nothing to understand, no particular motivation, nothing special.
Lewis Glinert, in The Joys of Hebrew, provides the definition “Without any thought to it, for no particular reason.” It could even be, as JewishLanguages.org points out, “just for fun.” Or as Anatoly Vorebey writes on LiveJournal, “’for nothing, meaningless action, caprice’ (‘he did it [stam]’).”
At WordReference.com, a fellow named Yuval or “Yuvali” writes:
The general translation of it to english, would be: “with/for no particular reason, purpose or cause”. For example, I could be picking-up a wooden-stick in the middle of the street; somebody would ask me: “why did you pick-up that stick?, and I'll reply: “stam...”
(…) Another example: I could return from a party and be greeted with a question from a friend (who wasn't at that party): “how was it?”. I can say “stam”, meaning “It was non-interesting, pretty boring and dull...”
If a little boy squashes a bug davka, he has no motivation other than an impulsive, defiant resolve to squash the bug. If he squashes it stam, he does so lackadaisically. He doesn’t even care much whether he squashes it or not. Morfix lists the meaning “(colloquial) purposelessly.”
But the word also used, in religious contexts, to distinguish a thing’s ordinary variety from a more strictly supervised category. Wine that is yayin stam hasn’t been certified kosher. Milk that is halav stam doesn’t come from a Jewish dairy in particular.
At Quora.com, Amir E. Aharoni supplies some examples of stam as an adjective for “various shades of “unimportant”, “simple”, “not special”, “plain”, “abstract”, “usual”, “random”. (Babylon adds “casual” and “simple.”) Some of Amir’s examples:
(Listening to a song on the radio…)
— “Mmm… stam shir”. (i.e. “not an outstanding song, plain and usual, I expected more from this otherwise brilliant artist, etc.”)
— “How was your day?”
— “Ehhh, stam yom”. (i.e. “a usual, uninteresting day”)
— “The boss told me I don’t work hard enough.”
— “Stam éfes, al tasím lev.” (He’s just a zero [i.e. loser], don’t pay attention.)
As if that weren’t adjectival enough, Amir notes that we also have the more unambiguously adjectival stamí, “which can usually be translated by ‘plain’ or ‘unremarkable’: ‘kafé stamí’ is ‘unremarkable coffee’.”
Guy Sharett says that stami means “the opposite of special” and offers the example “tshuvot stamiot, vague unclear answers.” Danby & Segal add “ambiguous, indefinite.” From the adjective comes the noun stamiut, which Sharett defines as “vagueness, randomness,” and from the noun comes the adverbial expression b’stamiut, “without intending too much.” If you ask me why we would say b’stamiut rather than just stam, I can’t give a very good answer. Maybe to indicate that it has to do with the state or mind rather than with objective circumstances.
While I was writing this column, the Israeli movie Eli & Ben was showing on TV. Ben takes something from the glove compartment of his car and Eli says ?מה זה — “What’s that?” Ben answers: סתם. לא חשוב. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
When stam describes “nothing,” it can “also show disappointment about an occurrence,” notes LearningHebrew.net:
— I thought you said you had a date tonight.
— Stam. She had other plans.
That’s a hard one to translate. It could be translated “It didn’t pan out” or “It wasn’t important anyway” or both, Guy Sharett notes that the word can mean “in vain.” But here, in its terseness, it also seems to imply “It’s nothing” with a heavy connotation of “Don’t make it worse by talking about it.”
Usuario, at CrazyJewishConvert.blogspot.co.il, provides a similar example. “Why are you late? Stam... (just because, don't want to talk about it).”
When stam appears in translations at Reverso.net, the word “just” comes up a lot.
את יודעת, אנחנו סתם מבלים בדירה.
You know, we’re just hanging out at the apartment.
אני סתם ילד שמן שמנסה להשתלב.
I’m just a chubby kid trying to fit in.
Shoshana Kordova of Haaretz writes:
“Stam” (STAHM) can mean “just,” in the sense of a qualifier that minimizes whatever comes next, like when you call up someone you haven’t spoken to in a while and you know the person is probably wondering if you have some ulterior motive so you start off by saying “I just called to say hi.”
In fact, Guy Sharett’s podcast includes a bit of a song called Stam, with lyrics by Chuli Zakai and Liran Aviv, that goes:
סתם רציתי לומר לך שוב
למרות שזה לא חשוב
אני אוהב אותך
I just wanted to tell you again
even though it’s not important:
I love you.
(Stevie Wonder sang one a little like that, didn’t he?)
Another word that Reverso.net associates with stam is “around.” Examples show that in English, “around” is used in expressions that convey a lack of direction or a lack of purpose: wandering around, joking around, lying around, sitting around.
And many examples use “being.” The meaning of “being” is far from the meaning of stam, but often the use of “being” suggests that the person has adopted a certain behavior for no good reason — for no reason resideing legitimately and inextricably deep in their personality:
טוב, אני בטח סתם פרנואידי, אבל
Well, I'm probably being paranoid, but...
זו לא פגישה אתה סתם מעצבן.
This isn't a meeting, this is you being annoying.
ניית"ן, אתה סתם עקשן, ונכון, שהתנגדתי לזה בהתחלה
Nathan, you're being stubborn.
אני יודעת, אני יודעת - .אני סתם טיפשה
I know, I know. I'm being silly.
The adverbial phrase min hastam means that it’s unnecessary to seek any further reason or proof. Yuvali discusses the phrase at WordReference:
Sometimes it means "Duh!" or "obviously", like: - "Do you work here?". - "I'm wearing the store's uniform, so Min HaStam I work here...". Sometimes it means "probably" or "most likely": e.g. "They already went on 4 dates, so Min HaStam they are sleeping with each other..."
There are, min hastam, many other uses and translations of the word stam, and you’re invited to add some , or further discuss those mentioned above, in the space below. And 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.