Tuesday, August 8, 2017


                                  Acronyms- recent in English ; ancient in Hebrew


                                                     Howard Richler

Want to save time and space? Try acronyms and initialisms. Take the following two sentences: a)“By taking AZT, the HIV patient forestalled getting AIDS and no DNA changes occurred.”  b)In her many years of working in the ER and ICU, Ann had seen virtually every disease including COPD, SARS, SIDS and ALS and understood why many patients had DNR instructions but she was less sympathetic to the man who came to the crowded ER claiming to have ADHD and thought he was a GOMER.  In the first sentence, having to employ the words “azido thymidine,” “humanimmuno-deficiency virus,” “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” and “deoxyribonucleic acid” would have resulted in a sentence more than twice as long. The second sentence employs acronyms to shorten the following:  Emergency room,” “intensive care unit,”  chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” “severe acute respiratory syndrome” and “sudden infant death syndrome,” “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” “do not resuscitate,” and “get out of my emergency room”  and thus decreases the sentence’s characters by almost 60%.

The difference between an abbreviation with an initialism is that it isn’t pronounced as a word rather you say the individual letters such as USA (United States of America) whereas as an acronym such as POTUS (President of the United States) that’s pronounced as a word.

Surprisingly, there is a dearth of well-known acronyms in the field of law. The only two that comes to mind are JAG, which stands for Judge Advocacy General and  the lesser-known SLAPP, Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, which was related to me by a Facebook contact.

The word “acronym” is of relatively young vintage. It marries the prefix acr-, “outer end, tip” (from the Greek akros) with the -onym suffix found in words such as homonym and synonym. The first OED citation of the word in 1940 informs us the word comes from the German Akronym. There is little evidence that English words were created in this fashion before the 20th century. John Ayto, in 20th Century Words, speculates that “the proliferation of polynomial governmental agencies, international organizations, and military units as the century has progressed (the last particularly during World War II) has contributed significantly to its growth.”  Also, many words from technological fields are actually acronyms such as radar (radio detection and ranging), sonar (sound navigation and ranging) and laser (light amplified stimulated electronic radiation).

On a recent trip to Israel I was struck by the great use of acronyms (called rashey teivot in Hebrew) both in print and in vernacular usage This is done by using the initials and between the last two letters adding inverted commas (two apostrophes) to show that it’s an acronym rather than an ordinary word. Often (and especially when they describe a noun), Hebrew acronyms are pronounced by the insertion of a vowel sound (usually (a) between the letters. As one would expect there are many government related acronyms such as Tzahal which is shorthand for Tzavah Hahaganah Le Yisrael (Israel Defense Force) and Shabak which truncates Sherut HaBitahon HaKlali (Israel Security Agency), responsible for internal security, including in the Israeli-occupied territories

There are, however, countless acronyms that shorten many everyday expressions:  

acronym    actual phrase    English translation

Chavlaz       chaval al hazman        wow, stunning or awful
Chul            chutz la'aretz               outside the country
Chuch          chas ve c'halilah          heavens forbid
Dash             drishat shalom             greetings
Lelat             leilah tov                      good night
Luz               luach   zmanim             time schedule
Sakash            sak sheinah                 sleeping bag
Zabashechem  zu b'aya  shelachem    that's your problem

In fact, acronyms have been widely used in Hebrew since at least the Middle Ages.Several important rabbis are referred to with acronyms of their names. For example, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak is known as Rashi (1040-1105) , Rav Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides-1135-1204) is commonly known as RambamRabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Nachmanides-1194-1270) is likewise known as the Ramban , and Baal Shem Tov is called Besht.(1698-1760).   Also

the word Tanakh refers to the Hebrew Bible   and is an acronym for Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi'im (Book of Prophets), and Ketuvim  (Hagiographa).

So the question remains, why does Hebrew both present and past have such a proclivity towards acronyms?  I believe this facility is due to the Hebrew alphabet being comprised only of consonants so that readers are used to inserting the vowels and can do so at will within any string of initials to form a pronounceable word.