Acronyms- recent in English ; ancient in Hebrew
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.
Surprisingly, 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 Oxford English Dictionary citation of the word in 1940 informs us the word comes from the German akronym. This German provenance is demonstrated by the term Gestapo, an acronym of Geheme Staatspolizei (Secret State Police) that was first used in1933 and the terms Schupo short for Schutzpolizei (uniformed police) and Kripo, a shortening of Kriminapolizei (criminal investigation department) both used by Nazis in the 1930s. Russian also had some administrative acronyms that were first employed in the 1920s and 1930s including Komsomol, an acronym of Kommunisticheski Soyuz Molodahi (organization of Communist youth) and Narkomprod which shortened Narody Commisariat Prodovolsviya (People’s Commisariat of the Soviet Union) that was responsible for food distribution and industrial goods.
One of the earliest English acronyms, snafu (1941) was popularized by profane WW2 American soldiers. It refers to a chaotic situation and stands for situation normal, all fouled up. This type of word shortening existed before the coining of the word acronym, but only to a limited extent. Examples here are the military term AWOL,(1894) absence without leave that constituted a punishable offence and Anzac, (1915) a term used to refer to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. There, however, is little evidence that English words were often 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) scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus and laser (light amplified stimulated electronic radiation).
The difference between an acronym and an initialism is that the latter isn’t pronounced as a word, rather you say the individual letters such as USA (United States of America) whereas an acronym such as POTUS (President of the United States)is pronounced as a word.
While in Israel I noticed countless acronyms that shorten many mundane everyday expressions. Here’s a sampling:
Acronym Full Hebrew Expression Translation
Chavlaz Chaval al Hazman wow, stunning or awful
(This can be a term of approval or disapproval and the speaker conveys the desired sense with intonation and facial expression)
Chul Chutz La’aretz outside the country (abroad)
(This term highlights the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and refers to anywhere outside of Israel).
Chuch Chas Ve Chalilah heaven forbid
Dash (Dush) Drishat shalom greetings and regards
(When addressing a man one says timsor lo dash mimeni, “send him my regards”, and a woman with timsor la dash mimeni, “send her my regards.” Warm regards can also be expressed as dash cham.)
Gavnatz Gvinah Tzehuba yellow cheese
Kalab Karov Lebayit close to home
Lelat Leilah Tov good night
Luz Luach Zmanim time schedule
Sakash Sak Sheinah sleeping bag
Shnatz Sheinat Tzohoraym afternoon sleep
Sofash Sof Shavua end of the week
Zabshechem Zu B’aya Shelachem that’s your problem
Hebrew has also provided us with a number of acronymic surnames. To wit, we have Baron, bar aron (son of Aaron), Beck, bene kedoshim (descendants of martyrs), Getz, gabbai tsedek (righteous synagogue official), Katz, kohen tsedek (righteous priest), Metz, moreh tsedek (teacher of righteousness), Sachs, zera kodesh shemo (his name descends from martyrs), and Segal, se gan levia (second-rank Levite).
In fact, acronyms have been widely used in Hebrew since at least the Middle Ages. We read every year in the Hagaddah at Pesach after the enumeration of the ten plagues the following notation: “Rabbi Judah used to refer to the ten plagues by their Hebrew initials – d’tzach, adash, b’achav.” In addition, certain iconic 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 Rambam, Rabbi 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.
Howard Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit