Updated: Apr 25
Challenging the Popular Hypothesis about its Origin
The Hebrew word סתלבט is commonly used in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to describe the a person or environment in a relaxed, sometimes unkempt, state. However, the word has deep roots throughout the Middle East and has been used in various languages for centuries.
The origin of the word סתלבט has been the subject of much debate, with many theories suggesting Arabic or Aramaic roots. However, the popular theory presented by Rubik Rosenthal in the "Comprehensive Slang Dictionary" in 2005, which suggests that it is borrowed from the Arabic word "estalbat," indicating hesitation, delay, procrastination, etc, is likely incorrect.
For one, the practice of borrowing a literary and uncommon word from Arabic into Hebrew slang is difficult to see as a plausible explanation. Additionally, while there is a connection between the meaning "procrastination" and "enjoyable idleness," it is hard to link the verb to the second meaning of mockery.
The origin of the word does indeed come from Arabic, but it is necessary to understand that its meaning has changed as it spread outside the ranks of the IDF. This is evidenced in the two examples given by Uziel and Labev, which are more appropriate for the slang word. The new IDF slang is flashier, referring to those who are idle while others are working.
The Hebrew borrowed the word "mastalbat," which was defined by Uziel and Labev in its familiar meaning, and the examples given by them are more suitable for the slang word. Thus, we are looking for a word with this meaning, and also with the meaning of "mock to, slave to."
In fact, such a word exists in Arabic, especially in Egyptian Arabic. In Egypt, if someone treats you like a brat - whether he's trying to work on you or just being lazy - you ask him: "Do you care about me?" which means "Are you indecisive about me?" This verb, "estalbat," is almost identical in pronunciation, structure, meaning, and the preposition accompanying it. It is used in the Egyptian army exactly as in the examples given above.
This is the verb that Hebrew borrowed, probably from immigrants from Arab countries. However, the etymology of spoken Arabic is not a well-developed field. There is no dictionary of Egyptian slang, and there is little information available online about the origin of the word. Nonetheless, it is likely that the word originated in Egypt, as it does not appear in classical Arabic dictionaries, and its earliest record is in the 1881 book of Dutch orientalist Reinhart Duzi, "Addition to Arabic Dictionaries." Dozi mentions the verb, noting that it means "to fraudulently obtain something that is not yours." Next to the verb, he indicates the noun "sylbat," meaning "a parasite, a person who lives at the expense of others." Both of these words are still used in Arabic, although their meaning has changed slightly.
Many believe that the word "stalbet" is derived from the Arabic word "sataba," which means to turn upside down. This hypothesis suggests that the word was adopted by Hebrew speakers during the British Mandate period when Arabic was a common language in the region. However, recent research challenges this popular theory.
According to linguists, the origin of the word סתלבט is more likely to be Aramaic, an ancient language that was once widely spoken in the Middle East. The Aramaic word "seltaba" means confusion or disorder, which is similar in meaning to the Hebrew word סתלבט.
Furthermore, the Aramaic language had a significant influence on Hebrew, which suggests that סתלבט may have been borrowed from Aramaic rather than Arabic. This theory is further supported by the fact that the word סתלבט appears in medieval Hebrew texts, which predate the British Mandate period.
In conclusion, while סתלבט may be a common IDF term, its origins are rooted in the rich linguistic history of the Middle East. Despite the popular belief that it comes from Arabic, recent research suggests that it is more likely to have originated from Aramaic.