Translatable but Debatable – תמהוני timhoni and its cognates

by Mark L. Levinson

It’s a definition that could have been left over from last month’s word, stam, but it intends to imply something else entirely. The Almaany online English–Hebrew dictionary defines tamuha (תמוה, ta-MOO-ha) as “without any reason” or at least “without any apparent reason.”  But whereas stam may refer to the offhand way we do something of no importance, like buying a fidget spinner on impulse, tamuha refers, from someone else’s point of view, to something we’ve done that appears to defy reason, like buying a circus tent on impulse.  The big Alcalay Hebrew–English dictionary defines it as “mystifying, surprising, amazing, strange, puzzling, peculiar, enigmatic.”

Tamuha literally means “wondered-at,” being a passive participle.  The active form of the verb, tamah, is as old as Genesis.  When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt and, although they’d never been there before, they found themselves assigned seats at the table in the exact order of their age, יתמהו האנשים איש אל־רעהו — “the men marvelled one at another,” as King James translates it.

But in current usage, tamuha often carries an element of sarcasm or disingenuousness.  When the Palestinian Authority failed to condemn a 2015 terror attack that killed Israeli civilians, Bibi Netanyahu called the silence tamuha in the light of the Authority’s vociferous reaction to the murder of an Arab boy some days earlier.  He didn’t really mean he was mystified by it.  He was euphemistically charging the Abbas administration with hypocrisy.

More heavy-handedly sarcastic is a July 2017 article by Eli Barak that says in its subhead, “The timing of the Comptroller’s report, when Bezeq is in the headlines, looks tamuha to say the least.”  The article begins:  “Surely it’s complete coincidence that just as the Bezeq affair is blowing up and the company’s owners and managers are being questioned, the State Comptroller finds it appropriate to publish a report on the very same topic.  After all, it’s impossible that the State Comptroller times his reports for precisely when the matter is topping the media headlines.  It can’t be so.” [my translation]

I’m not sure there’s a good translation that preserves the sarcasm.  You could bypass the sarcasm and translate tamuha as “suspicious” or “fishy.”  Or keep the sarcasm and say “curious” or “surprising” or “remarkable,” but those are somewhat weaker than tamuha.  Other suggestions are welcome.  (Use the comment space at the bottom of the column.)

These uses of tamuha involve a mockingly transparent pretense of tmimut תמימות, or naïveté.  As the Tengugo language-teaching site says, “Many linguists believe that originally the Semitic languages (Arabic and Hebrew) made strong use of Two-Letter roots but that over time most of them become Three-Letter roots. The traces remain in a small number of two letter words as well as in groups of three-letter words with a similar meaning and the same first two letters for their root.”

Whether derived from the same two-letter root or whether because they sound similar, a whole family of words lend connotations to one another regarding innocence and wonderment and strangeness.  And if there is a two-letter root, of course it’s tam תם, which we find in the Bible.

Job is described as תם וישר, which King James has as “perfect and upright.”  Instead of “perfect” for tam, other old translations have “blameless” and “simple.”  The 1917 Jewish Publication Society edition says “whole-hearted.” I find that a little tamuha, but I'm sure it wasn't written thoughtlessly. 

In the Song of Songs, יונתי תמתי is translated “my dove, my undefiled” or “my dove, my perfect one.”  King James and the 1917 Jewish Publication Society edition both go with “undefiled.”

Among the four sons in the Passover Haggadah, generally the one who is tam is understood as simple, although some commentators prefer to make a point by describing him as lazy or, on the contrary, as particularly inquisitive.

The Galil dictionary, by Sivan and Levenston, presents the spectrum of meanings for tam as “whole, complete; flawless, unblemished, perfect; simple, innocent, artless, naïve.” gives “naive, gullible, babe, ingenuous; simple, simpleminded; innocent.”

The simpleton is also called a timhoni תמהוני in modern Hebrew, and Even Shoshan explains that the word is used because the person arouses wonderment.  That may be so, but I think of a timhoni as alternatively being a person who wonders or is puzzled a lot.  Maybe the idea was imprinted on me by Dan Wolman’s first film, HaTimhoni, which in English was officially The Dreamer.  The hero preferred to be on the sidelines observing rather than intensively interacting with others.  Timahon, in Dov Ben Abba’s Signet dictionary, ranges from “surprise” and “wonder” all the way into “confusion” and “madness.”  The Ben Yehuda dictionary published by Steimazky adds “bewilderment.”

When the soothsayer has told Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March, and Caesar says “He is a dreamer.  Let us leave him,” I can think of no better translation than timhoni.  A champion athlete, on the other hand, is a person who arouses wonderment but no one would call him a timhoni for that reason.

The big Alcalay dictionary translates “timhoni” as “strange, eccentric, peculiar, funny, grotesque, ‘queer customer (fish)’” says “strange person, weird person, ‘different’ person.”, which depends largely on film subtitles for its corpus, lists “eccentric, squirrelly, wacky, weirdo, a crank, crackpot, fool, peculiar, oddball, wacko, hayseed, kook” as words translated by timhoni.  In fact, it translates the Radiohead line “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” as אני מוזר אני תמהוני.  I think it drops the ball when it translates “creep” as muzar, which simply means “strange,” and I think a creep is a more unsympathetic kind of a weirdo than a timhoni normally is.

More opinions and translations of timhoni, tam, and their cognates are welcome in the space below.  If there’s an unrelated word you’d like to see discussed, please write to me at .  An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.