Translatable But Debatable - להסתייג

The Hebrew-English dictionary in my suitcase when I came to Israel was the Ben-Yehuda pocket edition published in the USA at the time by Washington Square Press and in Israel by Steimatzky.  These days I find it useful for reporting what the words traditionally meant before the latest generation had its say.

Shel Bassel, scribe and scholar, suggested a discussion of translating the verb להסתייג.  The limp-paged old Ben-Yehuda defines it as “restrain oneself.”  It says that הסתייגות is “fencing off, limitation.”, on the other hand — a site with a talkback feature that presumably helps it stay up to date — says “to express doubts, to disagree.”  Between restraining oneself from going along with an idea on the one hand, and mounting the barricades of disagreement on the other hand, the spectrum around “to express doubts” includes, in Sivan and Levenston’s Galil Modern Dictionary, “have reservations (about an opinion); abstain, reserve judgement, dissociate oneself (from an action).”  Dov Ben Abba’s Signet dictionary says “reserve opinion.”

Ben-Yehuda’s “fencing off” connects the verb with the figurative סייג לתורה, the Mishnaic extra distancing of the self from anything that smacks of impropriety.  I have no idea whether the verb לסגת is also related, but for me the echo has always been there, the connotation of backing away from what others have proposed.  Being reflexive, להסתייג seems to be as much about the person involved as about the idea that is being handled בהסתייגות (“with reserve, with a grain of salt, cum grano salis,” the three-volume Alcalay dictionary says).  And like a fence, a הסתייגות is a defensive gesture; the strong do not declare a הסתייגות against the weak.

The ambiguity of הסתייגויות and its common translation “reservations” had its finest hour, I guess, when Ariel Sharon accepted the American road map for the Middle East with fourteen reservations.  That’s not an acceptance, Arab figures are complaining to this day.  Yes it is, Israel says, it just includes reservations.  Actually the original official term was הערות, and the translation was “response,” but הסתייגויות/“reservations” was quickly adopted by both the press and the government.  Another possible translation is “qualifications” (mentioned, under the noun, by both Sivan and Levenston’s dictionary and Ben Abba’s), but perhaps it is too precise for diplomacy, as is the idea of agreeing “conditionally” (also Sivan and Levenston).  The ambiguity of “reservations” even allowed Mahmoud Abbas, while complaining about Israel’s response to the road map, to assert, “we accepted it, despite our own comments and reservations.”

Not for the first time, we are confronting a word that translates more easily in its noun form than in its verb form.  There is nothing illegal about a two-word expression like “have reservations” or “express doubts,” but generally a one-word verb carrying the meaning is stylistically preferable to a two-word expression where a verb primarily serves to shunt the burden of meaning onto a noun.

A one-word English verb for expressing a partial objection is “quibble,” but it seems always to have reflected poorly on the objector.  Something of a search is necessary before a dictionary comes to hand that treats the noun “quibble” impartially as “a slight objection or criticism,” without implying that the quibbler is a mere time-waster.  For the verb, I found no definition at all that wasn’t unfavorable.  I think the problem may be the Q.  People don’t take words seriously that begin with a Q.

I did find a D word, though, “demur.”  None of my Hebrew-to-English dictionaries included it, just as none included “quibble,” but for הסתייגות Alcalay did include “demurrer” (which Merriam-Webster says is an objection or a “response in a court proceeding in which the defendant does not dispute the truth of the allegation but claims it is not sufficient grounds to justify legal action”).  From “demurrer” it is a short hop to the noun “demur” meaning “hesitation (as in doing or accepting) usually based on doubt of the acceptability of something offered or proposed” or “the act or an instance of objecting : protest,” and the verb “demur” meaning to delay, hesitate, take exception, object.  Not a word you hear every day, but a pretty good translation for להסתייג.

If there’s another word you would like to see discussed, please contact me at


Ty Kendall

How about "DISFAVOUR" (disfavor US).

As a transitive verb, Collins defines it as:
to regard or treat with disapproval or dislike...

...which is what you normally do with reservations. Not very widespread in everyday speech either though.

Shel Bassel

Thanks for this post. Somehow, when I use the word, I can't help thinking about the root סייג (fence) and have been trying to think of some equivalent word in English that incorporates that sensibility. While I feel that perhaps 'demur' is a good translation, I still find it lacking that סייג element. Ah, well. But your treatment of the word is superb. If I ever think of something better, I'll surely let you know--or perhaps other contributors will jump in. Shavua tov!

Ty Kendall

In the sense of "reserving one's opinion"(restraining yourself), there is the possibility of the relatively new verb "to fence-sit" / "to fencesit".

Whilst it can mean not taking sides, it does include the above meaning too.

Although it's far from perfect for a translation in all contexts.

To fencesit is rather ambivalent in English though, suggesting more than a pinch of indifference. Neither this nor my previous suggestion have the range attributed to להסתייג .

Anne Horenstein

I had reservations when you cast aspersions on words that start with the letter Q.

But here is a link to a writer who agrees with you.