Jerusalem: When Isaac Herzog was a child, his Egyptian-born, French-speaking mother thought him to be as pretty as a doll. So she blended its Hebrew word, "buba," with a French-sounding term of endearment, "joujou," to create a distinct nickname that would stick with the boy for life "Bougie."
Now, Israel`s newly elected opposition leader finds himself as the country`s main alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man universally known by the name his brothers pegged him when he was a kid: "Bibi."
The two are not alone. Despite its macho, militaristic image, the world of Israeli politics is filled with tough characters bearing, and even flaunting, their diminutive childhood nicknames. Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon is "Bogie," former Finance Minister Avraham Shochat is "Baiga" and another former Cabinet minister, Eliezer Zandberg, is "Moody," short for Hamoody, or "cutie."
Nicknames in politics are nothing new, but in Israel they appear to have taken on an art form.
"You can`t fight it. It`s just something very Israeli," Herzog told The Associated Press. "I can keep introducing myself as Isaac Herzog but people will still yell `Bougie` (BOO-jee) across the street. We are just a very familiar society."
Linguists cite a number of influences, including the playfulness of Yiddish, an eastern European language spoken by many of Israel`s founders, and the informal worlds of the military, kibbutz movement and youth groups that have inspired dozens of idiosyncratic names that often linger long into adulthood. But mostly the phenomenon speaks to Israel`s notoriously close-knit, informal nature, where personal boundaries are thin and everyone seems to meddle in everyone else`s business.
"It`s the psychology of language. This whole `buddy` culture is part of our Israeliness," said Ruth Almagor-Ramon, the language adviser at Israel Radio. "It`s not a linguistic thing, it`s a mentality. Everyone knows everyone and all it takes is for someone to overhear your mother calling you a name and then everyone calls you that."
For many, particularly those of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, descent, a nickname symbolised entry into the old boys club of the Ashkenazi, or European, elite. For others, a colorful moniker, particularly one earned in the military, becomes a powerful brand in and of itself.
Most Israelis didn`t even know the first name of general turned politician, former Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat. He was called "Cheech" and a beachside promenade is named after him. Another ex-general, the assassinated ultranationalist Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi, was called "Gandhi" because of his physical (certainly not ideological) resemblance to the Indian pacifist.