Sunday, June 23, 2024


I was curious about the origin of the Israeli slang term fukes פוּקְס, meaning "stroke of luck," referring to something positive that happened just by chance. 

My first thought was to look in Ruvik Rosenthal's Dictionary of Hebrew Slang. He said it came from the English "flux", and originated as a lucky shot in billiards:

But as hard as I tried, I couldn't find any connection between "flux" and the game of billiards.

I put the question aside for a while, and then came back to it again after a few weeks. A new search for the origin of fukes once again led me to Rosenthanl, but this time to his websites (he has a few). And this time, the answer was much more obvious:

For example here, he wrote:

And here

It turned out there was a typo in the printed book. The word wasn't "flux" but "flukes." He describes how Hebrew speakers during the British Mandate (in form of the language he calls "Finglish", meaning "Palestinian English") adopted the billiard term "flukes", and ignoring the plural form, and dropping the "L" sound, turned it into the singular fukes.

Proof of this comes from another slang term, hitfalek הִתְפַלֵּק, which is the verb form of fukes (meaning to do something unintentionally), but does preserve the "L" of "fluke" (and doesn't include the plural "S".)

Fluke is indeed a billiards term. The Online Etymology Dictionary has these entries for the different meanings of fluke, which may be related (our meaning is number 2):

fluke (n.1)

"flat end of an arm of an anchor," 1560s, perhaps from fluke (n.3) "flatfish," on resemblance of shape, or from Low German flügel "wing." Transferred meaning "whale's tail" (in plural, flukes) is by 1725, so called from resemblance.

fluke (n.2)

"lucky stroke, chance hit," 1857, also flook, said to be originally a lucky shot at billiards, of uncertain origin. Century Dictionary connects it with fluke (n.1) in reference to the whale's use of flukes to get along rapidly (to go a-fluking or some variant of it, "go very fast," is in Dana, Smyth, and other sailors' books of the era). OED (2nd ed. print) allows only that it is "Possibly of Eng. dialectal origin."

fluke (n.3)

"flatfish," Old English floc "flatfish," related to Old Norse floke "flatfish," flak "disk, floe," from Proto-Germanic *flok-, from PIE root *plak- (1) "to be flat." The parasite worm (1660s) so called from resemblance of shape.

Further discussion of the origin of "fluke" can be found in this post on the Inky Fool blog. 

Certainly fluke has moved from billiards to a more general sense of an unexpected or accidental stroke of luck, in both English and in Hebrew via fukes.

I must conclude with a quote from one of my favorite televison shows, The Office. In the episode Trivia, the generally bumbling character Kevin gives an answer in a trivia contest which brings his team to win the game. Everyone doubted him, thinking it was just dumb luck, and in response he gives this retort:

Look, I know it's easy to say tonight was just a fluke, and maybe it was, but here's a piece of trivia: a fluke is one of the most common fish in the sea. So if you go fishing for a fluke, chances are, you just might catch one.

Wisdom for the ages.

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