What is Balagan?

What is Balagan? Well, “balagan” is the first Hebrew word I learnt from my wife. It means basically chaotic or messy, and I use it to describe anything from my wife’s hair in the morning to the current state of the Middle Eastern peace process. The term appeals to me partly because I seem to set my life up to fight chaos (i.e. software development manager / programme manager) yet mess creeps in anyway – just take a look at the range of my interests as evidence. Mostly balagan is satisfying to say … try it while pretending you’re Israeli or Italian or from anywhere warm and emotional.

Maximillian Hannan (USA) put forward the view that …

balagan is Russian by origin. It was introduced to Israel by Russian immigrants. In modern Russian balagan means a booth or kiosk; it is less commonly used in the Israeli/Hebrew sense of messy/chaotic. Originally the term meant a kind of puppet theatre.

The puppet theatre aspect appeals as I was once a professional puppeteer.

Maciej St. Zieba (Poland) had some more to add …

You write, that balagan is a Hebrew word meaning ‘chaotic, messy’, then you write it is of Russian origin and it means now ‘booth, kiosk’. In fact neither of it is true or both are true – only partially.

The word in Hebrew comes from Yiddish, and in Yiddish -as quite frequently the case – it is common with Polish. In fact in Polish ‘balagan’ (written with a barred L) means ‘mess, untidiness, chaos’ (and is related to daily practical situation (like the state of one’s room) or (at least in Polish, my knowledge of Yiddish is not too deep) – to more abstract situations (like ‘a mess in one’s mind’, ‘a mess in the world’, ‘a mess in the government’).

To Yiddish and Polish the word has come from Russian. But it is a loanword there, too. The structure of the word immediately makes you think about Turkish. And I have checked within a Russian etymological dictionary: The word in Russian is of Turkic origin – Turkic means not present-day Turkish, but old-(or: proto-)Turkish. It has its corresponding words in Chuvash, Kyrgyz, Bashkir, Kazakh, Uzbek etc. languages. It means there ‘a wooden building’.

But even there it is a loanword – it comes from Persian (middle-Persian) balakhaana – which means ‘the external room’ or ‘the upper room’ (within a house).

Now you can guess what was the opinion of Poles and Jews about the state of the Russian wooden houses deep in the XVIIIth century, when the word came to our languages? The same can be said about the state of the Russian government.

Eugene Fedorichin (Russia/Canada) chips in …

What “Balagan” actually means now in Russian is, indeed, a “mess”, but it has a feel that is lost in translation. Balagan is close to a circus on the road, like the one Pee-Wee Herman was in. So when someone says “let’s stop this balagan”, it doesn’t mean a mess of a hair or a mess of a peace process, but rather some kind of chaotic time-killing activity, or when people procrastinate at work – play cards instead of coding HTML, or something. Balagan is also used for “farce” (hope the spelling is right) – when, for example, a certain country’s govt decides to go to war for oil and says it’s for freedom and expects everybody else to be convinced by the evidence 😉 The state of a given government or a political process or any other organization, if it’s a mess, is better described with another word with Turkic origin – “bardak”.

Amir (Lebanon) added …

Just wanted to mention that we use the word Balagan/Balakan (rarely- old school Beiruti accent) which I believe is from the Balakhaana of the Persians. ( More nowadays we say Balcon/Balgon reflecting the French influence). Ok, Anyways, we have a similar word for messy/chaotic/disorder …. and that’s Gala Gala and I believe that’s from the Turkish/Ottoman influence; and that sounds funnily similar to Balagan. 🙂 They sound pretty messy too.

Maciej St. Zieba (Poland) added yet more …

As you remember “balagan” is Hebrew/Yiddish/Polish “mess” < Russian/Turkic “wooden house” < Persian balakhaana “external room”. But “balakhaana” can be derived from OIE (Old Indo-European) *bhelg which means “wooden plank”. This ancient word’s direct descendant in English is “bulk”.

And from this same root we have the Polish word “belka” (direct decendant) and the English “balk” (came via Old-Norse) – both have the meaning of “wooden beam”, “girder”, “tie-beam”, “rafter” – (compare “fulcrum” which is a Latin relative to these two words).

An even more interesting, the English word “balcony”, Polish “balkon” (which came to both our languages from Old Italian (to Polish via French) where it came from Old Germanic, and which means “wooden platform”, “scaffold”.

Although the word “balcony” does not come directly from the Parsian “balakhaana”, but it is a similar type of derivative in another ancient language belonging to the same family, and nowadays it still keeps the similar sound and meaning.

It is obvious why for the Persian “wooden platform” is the “upper room” – the houses there were originally built of brick and stone, only the top (the roof) was frequently covered with wood and served as a veranda for “parties” during pleasant summer nights. Similarly in the Mediterranean countries. As I have recently read
and “roof-verandas” of restaurants very often served as “rooms rented by the hour” or brothels (“public houses”).

Now, the word “brothel”, as well as its Italian (“bordello”), French (“bordel”) and Polish (“burdel”) originally also has meant “wooden house”. It is derived from the OIE *bherdh, another word meaning “wooden plank” (see English “board” < Old Germanic “bord”).

Now, the shift of meaning from Russian “wooden house” to Polish/Jewish “mess” is quite comparable to the shift of meaning that the word “bordello” underwent. I am not sure about English, but at least in Polish and in French “bordel” also means “mess”. Compare: French “quel bordel!” = Polish “co za burdel!” = “what a mess!” and French “bordel!” = “shit!” (another kind of mess our shoes usually encounter in the streets when we are in a hurry).

So beware, not only your cottages and huts, but also your verandas may easily become messy, that’s in their nature 😉 The words reveal this nature. If you find a huge mass (bulk) of wooden planks (balk) scattered all around your balcony, you know whom you may expect there!? Quel bordel!

Ran Shinar (Israel) wrote:

Just thought you should know that “Balagan” is not a Hebrew word it is Turkish and means chaos. Another Turkish word, that has entered the Hebrew language is Bardak, which Israelis use as a mess, but actually means a brothel. The funniest Turkish word that Israelis use is Aslah, which is used to describe the tank that refills the toilet after it has been flushed. The Turkish word means to fulfil, like in keeping a promise. Most Israeli’s do not know that a lot of slang and expressions were brought to Israel by Safardi Jews from Turkey, as well as the fact that the Turks ruled the middle east for hundreds of years.

Yaron Carmi (Israel) added:

פרסית bala-khana (“עת גג”)‏ ←‏ балаган (“אל תאטרון”, “מעשה שטת”)‏.

It apparently started in Pharsy as two letter word meaning attic or balcony. Then moved to Turkish and Russian. In Russian it was pronounced as one word .At first it meant wood shed, later since such wood shed were used for comic theatrical shows such as “comedy del arte” they were called Balagan and the word received the colourful, nonsense disorganized meaning that was adopted in Hebrew by the settlers that came from Russia at the the end of 19th century. This word is also moved to Slavic languages (Polish, Bulgarian and Croatian) keeping the original formal meaning of shed but also as Slang with the same meaning as in Hebrew – chaos, disorder

http://he.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D7%91%D7%9C%D7%92%D7%9F (Hebrew; broken link)

http://www.nrg.co.il/online/archive/ART/255/496.html (Hebrew)

Shad Khel (Afghanistan ?) wrote:

Just thought you might be interested to add another meaning of the word balagan from my language. In Pushtu [a language from Afghanistan] bala means monster and balagan is plural so it means monsters.

Suleyman Mil (Turkish Cyprus ?) wrote:

Steven, I read about meaning word of Balagan. Its same meaning with ” baraka” which is useing Turkey Turkish today. ın Turkish Cypriot accent it is “Baranga” ıts meaning. Shed type house which build without attention.

Henri Meirov (Bulgaria ?) wrote:

Contrary to the written in http://balagan.org.uk/balagan.htm

The word “Balagan” doesn’t exist in Bulgarian.

However “Balagan/Balakan” seems being similar to the proto-Bulgarian word meaning “Bulgarian”.

Proto-Bulgarians were a Turkic people – they settled today northern Bulgaria (Moesia), Dobruja and Bessarabia at 680/1 CE.

The name of the main Bulgarian mountain (Balkan) is also from the same root. The Balkan Peninsula is named after it.

In conclusion, the word “balagan” doesn’t exist in Bulgarian, probably because “balagan” is modus Vivendi of Bulgarians and Balkan Peninsula inhabitants in general.

John Reade mentioned:

Did you know there was once a club in New York called the Balagan Club?

This was back in 1924. It was later renamed the Club Alabam and was the first place Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra played

The address was 216 West 44th Street. I don’t know if the building still exists.

Juan Luis Chulilla Cano (Spain) offered:

I have found an important absence in your dissertation about “balagan”: its translation into Spanish. We have just a perfect, direct translation: chapuza. I find it an awesome description of modern military history of my country, so the second meaning is as appropriate as your first meaning for your web. Chapuza is an almost perfect translation for balagan, since in both countries CHAOS and above all lack of order in daily life have an overwhelming presence and importance.

Crispin Gray (England) said:

Most curious. In Spanish “tinglado” has exactly the same multiple meanings as “balagan” (the “shed” or “warehouse” meaning is certainly current; the “mess” or “muddle” meaning may be a bit old-fashioned these days). But I imagine the root is very different.

Paul Silbert (Australia) chipped in with:

From my experience in Israel, I got the sense that ‘balagan’ in Hebrew/Yiddish carries overtones that make it the exact equivalent of the obsolete English expression ‘disorderly house’ which was a euphemism for a brothel.

Steve Phenow amused me by sharing

Balagan is Polish slang for “huge cock-up” I heard it from my grandmother (who was German, but who assigned Warsaw as her duty station.) when I was growing up. I heard it a lot…:-) (Du bist balagan!!) All this time I thought your last name was “huge cock-up,” Mr. Thomas. 🙂