Want to save time and space? Try acronyms and initialisms. Take the following sentence: “In her many years of working in the ICU, Ann had seen virtually every disease, including COPD, SARS, AIDS, SIDS and ALS and understood why many patients had DNR instructions, but she was less sympathetic to the hypochondriac in the crowded ER who claimed to suffer from ADHD or PTSD, or both, and believed he was a GOMER.”

The sentence employs acronyms to shorten the following: “intensive care unit,” “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” “severe acute respiratory syndrome,” “acquired immunity-deficiency syndrome,” “sudden infant death syndrome,” “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” “do not resuscitate,” “emergency room,” “attention deficit hyperactive disorder,” “post traumatic stress disorder” and “get out of my emergency room,” and thus decreases the sentence’s characters by almost 50 percent. 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) 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 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 in 1933; 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 World War II American soldiers. It refers to a chaotic situation and stands for “situation normal, all f***** (or 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 offense 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).

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 Forces); 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 mundane everyday expressions:

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).

Acronyms have been widely used in Hebrew since at least the Middle Ages. In fact, we read every year in the Hagaddah at Pesach after the enumeration of the 10 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 toward 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.

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