Hebrew word of the week: Balagan


Words indicating chaos are quite common — often there’s more than one in every language,* such as tohu va-vohu* in Genesis 1:2. Balagan is used in several Slavic languages, but it originated with the Persian bala-khane “top room, attic” (a place where things are stored in a disorderly fashion).** Such words tend to be somewhat slangy and obscene, as with snafu, which comes from U.S. military slang, an acronym for “situation normal, all f***ed up.” 

Other such words in Hebrew: bet-zonot “brothel”; bardaq “brothel; chaos” (derived from Russian); bordel “bordello” (from French); and the more formal, ’i-seder “disorder.” A derived verb: levalgen “confuse, be confused; disorderly.” A humorous Israeli gardener advertises himself: ba’la-gan “comes to-the-garden.”

*As in English: topsy-turvy, helter-skelter.

**Compare to the Yiddish (Israeli Hebrew) boidem, for attic, a crawlspace, where things not in daily use are stored.

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA