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The Word Nerd: Acronyms — new in English but ancient in Hebrew

Want to save time and space? Try acronyms and initialisms. Take the following two sentences:

• “By taking AZT, the HIV patient forestalled getting AIDS and no DNA changes occurred.”

• “In her many years of working in the ER and ICU, Sue had seen virtually every disease including COPD 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, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, do not resuscitate, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and get out of my emergency room and thus decreases the characters in the sentence 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 an acronym such as POTUS (President of the United States) is pronounced as a word.

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.” 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 trip to Israel earlier this year I was struck by the 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 (between the letters).

As one would expect there are many government related acronyms such as Tzahal, short for Tzavah Hahaganah Le Yisrael (Israel Defense Force) and Shabak, which truncates Sherut HaBitachon HaKlali (Israel Security Agency), responsible for internal security.

Countless acronyms shorten many mundane everyday expressions.

Acronym Full Hebrew Expression Translation
Chavlaz Chaval al Hazman wow, stunning, awful
This can be a term of approval or disapproval.

Chul (abroad) Chutz La’aretz outside the country
This term refers to anywhere outside of Israel.

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.

Sofash Sof Shavua end of the week

In fact, acronyms have been widely used in Hebrew since at least the Middle Ages.

Several important rabbis are referred to by acronyms. Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak is known as Rashi (1040-1105); Rav Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides-1135-1204) is known as Rambam; and Baal Shem Tov is called Besht.(1698-1760). Tanach refers to the Hebrew Bible and is an acronym for Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Book of Prophets), and Ketuvim (Hagiographa).

So why does Hebrew both present and past have such a proclivity towards acronyms? I believe this is because the Hebrew alphabet is comprised of only 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.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.

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