Thursday, January 15, 2015

tachlit and tachlis

Today one of Israel's politicians began his election campaign using the word tachlis תכל'ס. Let's take a look at the history and meaning of the word.

Tachlis (or tachles) תכלס is the Yiddish form of the Hebrew tachlit תכלית. Tachlit comes from the root כלה - "cease" - and in the Bible meant "end" or "limit" (Iyov 26:10, 28:3, Nechemiah 3:21), "completeness" (Tehilim 139:22), and "purpose" (Iyov 11:7). The last meaning became the primary meaning in post-biblical Hebrew, with the additional connotations of "aim" and "intention". However, we do see the meaning of end used in poetry, such as the prayer Adon Olam, where God is described as being בלי תכלית bli tachlit. Clearly that doesn't mean that God is without purpose, but rather He is without an end or a limit. (That phrase is the punchline to one of my favorite Jewish jokes. Q: Who are the three cowboys in Adon Olam? A: Billy Reishit, Billy Tachlit and Kid Ruchee...)

Yiddish took the word tachlit and ended up with a different pronunciation than used in Sephardic and later modern Hebrew. The accent moved from the second to first syllable, and the dagesh-less tav was pronounced as "s" instead of "t". In Yiddish, the word might have still been spelled the same as in Hebrew, but in Modern Hebrew slang it took on its own identity by having a samech replace the final tav.

The meaning also changed. From the sense of "purpose" or "aim" in Hebrew, the Yiddish form tachlis started to mean "the main point" - and then took on the meaning "practical details", "bottom line", or "brass tacks". It even can have a more general sense of "true" or "actually". So you might say in a business meeting, "Let's talk tachlis", or if after trying to figure out what restaurant to go to, you might confess that, "Tachlis, I'm not that hungry." More recently, I've heard it used on it's own, as an expression of agreement (similar to the English "true that" or "right on!").  If one person said at a party, "It's pretty boring here" another might respond, "Tachlis".

While the word is slang in modern Hebrew (and there isn't even full agreement as to whether there's an apostrophe before the samech or not), it is rather ubiquitous in spoken Hebrew. The word tachlit is still used (something multipurpose is רב-תכליתי rav-tachliti), but many Israelis - particularly those who've never heard Hebrew spoken with the Ashkenazic pronunciation  - are actually surprised to hear that tachlis derives from tachlit. Other slang words that have gone through the Hebrew -> Yiddish -> Hebrew conversion, like chevra חבר'ה - "group of friends" and maiseh מ'עישה "story" - would be easier for Israelis to trace back, because the spelling has been more closely maintained.

Did I get to the tachlit of this post? Tachlis, I guess I did.

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