Sunday, April 19, 2020


One of the most popular words in Israel slang is stam סתם. It means "just kidding." How did it come to mean that?

In Biblical Hebrew, the verb satam סתם means two things: a) to literally stop up or close up (wells) and b) to hide, conceal (to close up in a metaphorical sense).

Today the first meaning still exists. A blocked pipe is satum סתום, and a rude way of telling someone to shut up is stom et hapeh סתום את הפה - literally, "close your mouth." A valve is a shastom שסתום. It is a blend of the similarly words with opposite meanings - satam (to close) and shatam שתם (to open).

The metaphorical sense developed further. Under Aramaic influence, the word stam came to mean "a vague or indefinite expression", "an anonymous opinion" or "in general." Klein writes that these senses developed from "something stopped up", "something closed", "something unknown." In Medieval Hebrew the adjective stami סתמי came to mean "vague, indefinite, uncertain." In Modern Hebrew, stami means "neutral", and has been used in attempts to replace the Yiddish pareve, but without much success.

The Aramaic form of stam, סתמא stama, also meant "anonymous opinion," but also meant the related "without qualification." A form of that word in Talmudic literature is mistama מסתמא - "of a general nature." In Yiddish this became mistome and in Modern Hebrew - min hastam מן הסתם. The more recent sense is "likely, probably, predictably" - since as this book puts it, "what is generally applicable is most probably applicable in a more specific case."

The meaning "without qualification" brings us closest to the current meaning in modern Hebrew slang. Another way to say "without qualification" is "just is, merely." It had that sense in Yiddish, and entered Israeli slang with the same connotation.

So stam could mean "nothing fancy." How was the meal? "Stam, nothing special." Or, "that was no stam vacation, it was amazing."

But it can also mean "for no particular reason." Why aren't you coming to the party? "Stam, I don't feel like it." Or, "I just stam called to say hi." And while that sense of stam sounds rather apathetic, the just kidding version has a very different tone. As Shoshana Kordova wrote here:

Let’s say your Israeli colleague wants to pull your leg. When you get into the office your coworker, ever a kidder, announces that the computer system is down and no one will be able to do any work until the tech people fix it. He watches as you get excited (“Yes! I get to play hooky without having to take a sick day!”) or upset (“Now I’ll have to stay longer to finish the project I need to get done today!”), and then breaks in to let you know it was all a joke. The word he reaches for could well be “stam,” but in this context the “a” sound is usually drawn out, sounding something like “Staaaaaaaaaahm!”

Or a different example here:
-That dress looks terrible on you.
-Stam! It looks great on you.

Even more samples of its use can be found here.

I think this is an interesting example of a word that meant "closed up" and "concealed" and ended up meaning "probably" and "for no reason at all." And the most fascinating bit of trivia? The English word stem - as in "to stem the tide" - actually derives directly from the Hebrew satam!


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