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Let’s argue Semitics: this word never means what you expect

Ideas

A WORD IN THE HAND: DAVKA

Let’s argue Semitics: this word never means what you expect

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
Ponder this: How old you would be if you didn't know the day you were born? This profound question is from the song 'Don't Let the Old Man In' from the movie 'The Mule'.
Ponder this: How old you would be if you didn't know the day you were born? This profound question is from the song 'Don't Let the Old Man In' from the movie 'The Mule'.
Image: 123RF/Serafima Antipova

In this world of absolute certainties (setting aside the Omicron variant’s effects, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and a couple of other things), it is a rare and wonderful occasion when one stumbles across a word of uncertain meaning.

Davka is one of those words.

Being of mixed Irish Catholic and Dutch Protestant origins, I am not well versed in Yiddish, but I have friends who are and I marvel constantly at the breadth and depth of understanding words descended from Aramaic parents can convey.

The state of Israel is not all that popular, but let us park politics in the basement for a moment and look at language. Hebrew, and in particular its colloquial offshoot Yiddish, provides a trove of riches to speech and writing.

Many articles have been written about obscure terms that have no direct English translation. The Japanese and Scandinavians seem particularly ept (this is not a word but it should be) in coining words that describe gossamer feelings and chiffon circumstances not fully grasped in other tongues.

Davka is just one example of a word with an ineffable wealth of meanings. 

Like the Israel-Palestine conflict (incidentally, Colum McCann’s superlative fact-based novel Apeirogon — the title means a geometric shape with an infinitely countable number of sides — explores the devastating complexity of this issue with enormous beauty and sensitivity), the word davka has many interpretations. 

When I asked my polymath friend, a resident of Brooklyn, NYC, to explain davka, he said: “It is really hard to define, but basically it means ‘I am going to do it way X, just because I really know you want me to do it way Y, and it will irritate you that I am not’.”

To illustrate this sense of davka, which in US slang might be called “ornery” and in other places possibly “otherwise”, my friend gave an example: “She bought him a llama davka because she knows he likes iguanas.”

This also shows the diversity of davka as a part of speech. It can be an adjective, an adverb, a verb or a noun. How many words are this versatile?

It is never wise to rely on one interpretation of anything, so I did a little further research. The Jewish-English lexicon gives the two main meanings of davka as “definitely or exactly stated; specifically” and “just to annoy; just to be contrary”.

Hebrew linguist Shoshana Kordova, writing for Haaretz in 2012, made a valiant attempt to separate the many layers of davka’s meanings, writing that “davka is often translated, in a sometimes clunky fashion, as ‘precisely’ … [but] doing something ‘davka’ can mean wilfully, spitefully or deliberately taking an action calculated to antagonise.”

The Jewish Chronicle defines davka as a word describing an act done either “just to annoy” or “in his own inimitable way”.

People who do things in their own inimitable way are bound to annoy someone somewhere along the line, of course, but these divergent meanings make davka an immensely complex word and notion.

The Chronicle creates even more confusion when it cites a third meaning of davka: “precisely” or “punctiliously”.

So, where does this leave us when we are trying to get our davkas in a row? We could say something is davka if it is precisely and absolutely right. Or we could say someone who has a unique way of doing things is davka when he does something his own weird way.

Or — and this is the sense in which I was introduced to the word davka — we could say that someone who refuses to do something entirely sensible, purely because they are being bloody-minded, is davka.

I don’t want to reveal too much, but if a bunch of friends from different provinces are going to be spending a loose-knit holiday together, in a time of Omicron, and if one of the party suffers from enormous anxiety and respectfully requests the others to have a PCR test before embarking on said holiday, and if some members of this squad refuse to do this simply because they don’t want to, I think “davka” might be the right word for them.

Oh and even more incidentally, whenever I type “davka”, my autocorrect function tries to change it to “Dave”, which happens to be the name of my inimitable and extremely ornery girl cat. If you want the feline manifestation of pure davka, look no further.

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