They Call It "Fake News" in Other Countries, Too

From Hebrew to Spanish to German to Italian and onward, the term is now as international as Coca-Cola.

Evan Vucci/AP.

Evan Vucci/AP.

Observation
Feb. 6 2019
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Feyk Sh’kifut, “Fake Transparency,” was the caption of an article in the January 29 Israeli daily Haaretz. Its subject was a new set of regulations announced by Facebook to deal with b’ayat ha-feyk nyuz, “the problem of fake news,” by making it more difficult to hide its origins. The author of the article, obviously, did not think the regulations would prove effective.

It’s not only in Hebrew that the English term “fake news” is now domesticated. I don’t read enough of the world’s languages to be able to assure you that it exists in every one of them, but it has definitely spread far and wide. Les Français sont de plus en plus préoccupés par les fake news, “The French are more and more worried by fake news,” was a headline last week in the French daily Figaro. Vier von fünf Menschen in der Schweiz sehen Fake News als Gefahr für die Demokratie, “Four out of five Swiss view fake news as a danger to democracy,” Switzerland’s Aargauer Zeitung informed its readers last October. Los españoles son los eurepeos que más creen las fake news, “The Spaniards are the Europeans who most believe fake news”—that’s from the Spanish El Heraldo. A headline in the Dutch Nieuwskoerir warned, Door fake news gaan mensen twijfelen aan de volledige realiteit, “Through fake news, people come to doubt all reality.”

You’ve had enough? So have the Italians. Le fake news fanno male alla salute, says the mass-circulation Corriere della Sera: “Fake news is bad for your health.”

All of these languages, of course, can say “fake news” perfectly well without recourse to English. In French it’s les fausses nouvelles, German has gefälschte Nachrichten, etc. Yet all prefer “fake news” and use it regularly—perhaps because it’s snappier, or perhaps because when popularized by President Trump after taking office, the expression was so strongly associated with him that it was retained in his words. (Ironically, the president may have picked it up from Hillary Clinton, who said of her electoral defeat at his hands, a month before his inauguration, that it was partly the result of an “epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year.”)

One way or another, “fake news” is now as international as Coca-Cola.

 

You can say “fake news” in proper Hebrew, too, if you have a mind to. The natural way of doing so would be ḥadashot (news) m’zuyafot (counterfeit, phony). But at a recent session in Jerusalem of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, one of whose functions is to invent or codify Hebrew equivalents of foreign words and terminology, it was officially resolved to call fake news ḥadshot kazav.

This combines, in the construct or genitive case, ḥadashot with kazav, a biblical word meaning falsehood that is rarely used in everyday Israeli speech, and that has, one imagines, an even smaller chance of replacing “fake news” than does gefälschte Nachrichten in German. The Academy of the Hebrew Language, bless its soul, is like one of those Soviet factories that were paid to produce shoes whether anyone bought them or not. It turns out neologisms at a merry clip and most pile up on the shelves.

What is, to the best of my knowledge, unique about Hebrew is that the “fake” of “fake news” has escaped the clutches of “news” and begun to lead a life of its own. Feyk sh’kifut is but one example. Last month, to cite another, Israel’s former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, who resigned not long ago from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, accused the latter of releasing feyk s’karim, fake polls, that showed him, Liberman, doing poorly in the upcoming Israeli elections. And another former minister, Likud member Gideon Sa’ar, now seeking to make a political comeback, recently accused Israel’s Channel 2 of a feyk koteret or a fake headline in running a story reporting that he had attacked Netanyahu for appointing himself Liberman’s successor.

Some other Hebrew cases of feyk used as a free-floating adjective that I’ve come across, all dating to the Trump era, are feyk uvdah or fake fact; feyk doaḥ or fake report; feyk b’ḥirot or fake elections; feyk taḥarut or fake competition; and feyk tiv’oni or fake vegan. That last phrase was used for Netanyahu’s son Yair, who, after announcing earlier this year that he was swearing off all animal food products, was allegedly spotted consuming chicken schnitzel in a pita at a Tel Aviv fast-food stand.

 

I know of no other language that has appropriated the “fake” of fake news in this manner. It is a manner, moreover, that violates a basic rule of Hebrew grammar, in which adjectives, as we have seen in the case of ḥadashot m’zuyafot, follow their nouns and do not precede them as in English. Normally, if an English adjective like “fake” were borrowed by Israelis, it would occur post-nominally in the form of feyki, as in tiv’oni feyki, a fake vegan. Feyk tiv’oni is thus also fake Hebrew.

We live, so we are told and so it would appear to be, in an age in which the real and the virtual are ever harder to tell apart. The headline in the Dutch paper Nieuwskoerir had it right. It’s not so much fake news that worries us as it is fake everything—or, as one might say over the objections of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, feyk ha-kol.

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More about: Donald Trump, Hebrew, Language, Politics & Current Affairs