Jona van der Schelde

The inevitability and infectiousness of Hebrew’s sassy suffix

Courtesy of the author

When I told someone in Tel Aviv that I was from the Netherlands and she responded with ‘aah, Amstush!’, my ears perked up. I had heard this suffix, -ush, plenty of times already but never connected to an obscure word like Amsterdam. In Israel, you hear hiush and byeush all the time as greetings and mom and dad turn into imush and abush. Especially in the last ten years, this Slavic diminutive, which entered the language through Yiddish (and Polish and Russian, for that matter) and at first mostly attached to names, like Hadarush and Ze’evush, has become ubiquitous in the Hebrew of primarily young people (one linguist argues that -ush feels less Yiddish than the quite archaic Ashkenazi -ke or -le as in Chaimke or Dvorale, and was therefore more widely embraced by modern Israelis). 

Diminutives are words that denote smallness and cuteness generally, and by extension are often used affectionately or sarcastically. Hebrew has all kinds of ways to diminutize a word – it’s a much richer language than English in that regard which only has fringe diminutives like -let (as in piglet) or the nearly universal -i attached to names, like Johnny or Rosie. In Hebrew, diminutives paradoxically come in all shapes and sizes. There’s bulky, beautiful ones like klavlav (for kelev – dog) and chazarzir (for chazir – pig), both formed through reduplication, another near-universal linguistic phenomenon in which sounds are repeated (think of fancy-schmancy or teenie-weenie). There’s short, simple ones like mitbachon and pilon (from mitbach and pil – kitchen and elephant), cheeky, chubby ones like bachurčik and katančik (affectionate names meaning ‘little (guy)’- the suffix also of Slavic origin) and downright schmutzy, pudgy -ush, which is mushed and pushed at the end and sometimes in the middle of words (chaverushim, ahuvushit) as much as possible by some. It’s not strictly a diminutive, but often indicates a playful, light-hearted tone (like the vendor at the shuk calling you mamush).

It’s a hit in many ways, but also a source of annoyance for some. In the famous sketch show Eretz Nehederet, the stereotypical, spoiled Tel Avivi teenager Keshet uses the suffix constantly, like when she’s whining to her imush about the glamour she requires at her impending Bat Mitzvush. The latest mutation of the ush-virus comes from the pandemic, of course: coronush. Language purists don’t always appreciate the suffix, arguing that it shows the decaying of Hebrew into a lazy, child-like vernacular. However, language changes constantly no matter how much one tries to resist it. Also, at closer inspection, it’s apparent that -ush is not that simple at all. 

You can’t just attach -ush to any word you like, there’s some subtle rules to abide by. For example, the suffix sounds the most natural after a stressed syllable (so sabíchush but not faláfelush, chatúlush but not kélevush), the least amount of syllables (therefore Amstush and Londush but not Amsterdamush or Londonush) and especially in an endearing context (sabush ve-savtush) or when belittling someone (Yairush Netanyahu). 

The unique thing about the suffix is that, despite the underlying ‘rules’ that govern it, it can be attached to all sorts of lexical categories. Nouns and names of course, but also interjections like sababush (‘cool/fine’), adjectives like mushlamush (‘perfect’) and even verbs, as I learned when I complimented my Hebrew teacher Aviv on his sweater and he said ken, ahavtush? (yeah, did you loveush?). I did love, and I also really love to hear that -ush smooshed all over the place.

About the Author
Jona van der Schelde loves language and cycling. He lives in the Netherlands and teaches Hebrew.
Related Topics
Related Posts