Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hebrew Acronyms

(Published  October 11, 2017 in Jewish Boston)

                                  Acronyms- recent in English ; ancient in Hebrew


                                                     Howard Richler

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

Monday, October 2, 2017


                      (Originally published in Lexpert-Oct 2017)    
                      To Pun or Not to Pun?


                                Howard Richler

If you are a reticent punster be aware that you represent the not-so-silent majority. It has been calculated that two-thirds of the jokes in a typical language collection rely on puns. The humour in language is often deliberate but many have posed this ludic question: To pun or not to pun? 

Puns have been much maligned by a host of commentators. Freud described puns as “cheap,” and Oliver Wendell Holmes assailed them as “verbicide.” Many writers in 17th and 18th century England, such as John Dryden, Daniel Defoe and Joseph Addison believed that the English language approached perfection and that the inherent ambiguity in puns created confusion and impoliteness. In an article in the Tatler in 1710, however, Jonathan Swift mocked this “affectation of politeness,” because he realized, as Shakespeare did, that individual words possess multiple interpretative possibilities. Puns have had other defenders. Three hundred years ago, Henry Erskine countered the statement that “a pun is the lowest form of wit” by adding that “it is therefore the foundation of all wit,” and Oscar Levant opined that it is the “lowest form of humor – when you didn't think of it first.”

Punning has been a language fixture through the ages. In Homer's Odyssey,

Odysseus introduces himself to the Cyclops – as Outis, which means “no man” in Greek. He then attacks the giant, who calls for reinforcement from his fellow monsters with the plea “No man is killing me!”  Naturally, no one rushes to his aid, proving that the pun is indeed, mightier than the sword. Cicero was another habitual grave punster. When a man plowed up the burial ground of his father, Cicero couldn't resist interjecting, “This is truly to cultivate a father`s memory.”

In the Bible there are many puns on names. In Hebrew, adamah means ground and edom means red. The name Adam may derive from the red earth whence he came. The name Jacob is derived from the Hebrew word for heel (ah'kev), because he held onto the heel of his older twin brother Esau at birth.  However, award Jesus the prize for best Biblical pun. We read in Matthew 16:18: “Thou art Peter (Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra), I will build my Church.” Pope Gregory, one-time guardian of the Rock, punned when he stated that English slaves were Non Angli, sed angeli; “not Angles, but angels.”

The heyday of English language puns was the Elizabethan era. This type of wordplay was enjoyed by all strata of society with people differentiating among all sorts of wordplay, such as “pun,”  “repartee” and “double entendre,” to name  but a few of these categories and wordsmiths adhered to a rigid separation among these terms. For example, according to the OED a pun refers to “the use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or the use of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect; a play on words.” The OED defines the term double entendre as “a double meaning; a word or phrase having a double sense, esp., as used to convey an indelicate meaning.” It is usually reserved for puns with sexual content such as this ditty: Did you hear about the sleepy bride who couldn’t stay awake for a second?

The creation of puns was facilitated by the many recent borrowings from the Romance languages in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Also, the revolutionary changes in English pronunciation at the beginning of the fifteenth century created many new homonyms, the building blocks of puns. Queen Elizabeth1 herself puns doubly when she declares,“You may be burly, my Lord of Burleigh, but ye shall make less stir in my realm than the Lord of Leicester.”

Typology of Puns

Puns can be divided into a discrete number of categories. First we have homophonic puns that treat words that are homonyms as synonyms.  Example -Why is it so wet in London?  Because so many kings and queens reign there. Another form is the homographic pun which uses words that are spelled the same but possess different meanings and sounds. Example - Did you hear about the optician who fell into a lens grinder and made a spectacle of himself? These two forms can be combined, and when this is done it is usually referred to as a homonymic pun. Example - She was only a rancher's daughter, but all the horsemen knew her.  Still another genre is the compound pun in which a word or string of words forms another word or string of words. Example - Where do you find giant snails? On the end of giants' fingers.  The final type is the recursive pun where the second part of the pun depends on understanding the first part. Example - A Freudian slip is where you say one thing and mean your mother.

Next month, I’ll look at some of the verbal wit from the greatest punster of all time– William Shakespeare.

Adapted and excerpted from Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.