A Short History of Little Words

Jewish Word | Hebrew Acronyms
By | Sep 27, 2017

It’s hard to escape the OMGs and LOLs  of today, but don’t blame millennials—acronyms actually originated thousands of years ago with the development of the ancient Hebrew alphabet. Around the 10th century BCE, Hebrew letters emerged out of ideographic pictures and, soon after, groups of letters started to be used in place of frequently recurring words. At first this was mainly due to a lack of space and for the convenience of the scribe. In an era in which delicate quills and homemade ink were used to painstakingly write on hard-to-obtain parchments, scribes were eager to find shortcuts. Similarly, in the first and second centuries BCE, acronyms were often inscribed on the small faces of Maccabean coins to indicate the name of the person who had issued them, such as Y”HD for Yehudah Aristobulus on a coin from 104 BCE. As text commentaries became more common, acronyms that reflected religious beliefs and practices came into vogue. For instance, Y’’Y began to be used for Adonai (God), reflecting the 3rd century CE understanding that prohibitions against blasphemies in the Mishna meant you should not write out God’s name.

Later, when Jews lived as a minority in Christian and Muslim countries, an increased desire for secrecy and privacy also became a motivation for devising and using new acronyms. Y-sh’’U became a commonplace acronym for yimakh shemo ve zikhro “obliterate his name and his memory”—the strongest curse in the Hebrew language, reserved for the greatest enemies of the Jewish people. Most daringly, in certain Jewish medieval polemics, it was even occasionally used in reference to Jesus. With the late medieval and early modern rise of mysticism, Jews created acronyms to obscure the secrets of Kabbalah from non-Jews. AGLA for alah gibor leolam adonai—“Thou art powerful and eternal, Lord”—became prevalent in magical formulas for everything from protective amulets to flying.

Today, Hebrew acronyms are more popular in the written word than ever before. Some have been in use since ancient times, while others have only entered the language in the past few years. You see them all over the place, but do you know what they mean? Here’s a brief guide to some of our favorites.

Sh’’Vz for Shvur Zayin

Literally means “broken-dicked,” commonly used to indicate that someone, usually a man, is down or depressed.

Since his wife left him for his brother, the poor man is Sh’’Vz.

Chavlaz for Chaval al Hazman

Literally means “a waste of time,” commonly used in Israel as a slang term for “wow!”

George Clooney just entered the restaurant, Chavlaz!

ZBy’’Sh for Zo Ba’aya Shelcha

Literally means “That’s your problem!”

If you don’t like me, ZBy”Sh!

CHu’’CH for Chas V’Chalilah

Literally means a disgrace and a curse,” commonly placed at the end of a sentence describing a horrible event.

She might fail her medical boards, CHu’’CH!

Z”L for Zichrono Livrachah

Literally means May his memory be for a blessing,” commonly used in writing to indicate that someone has died.

The memorial for Shlomo Shlomowitz Z’’L will be at 4 P.M.

Shna”tz for Sheinat Tzohorayim

Literally means sleep of the afternoon,” commonly refers to a short afternoon nap or siesta.

All I want to do is take a Shna’’tz!

B’’T for Ba’al Teshuvah

Literally means someone who has returned,” commonly used to refer to someone who was born Jewish but became significantly more religiously observant.

Shifra is a B’’T; she started keeping kosher at age 42.

AMU”Sh for Ad Maia V’esrim Shana

Literally means until a hundred and twenty,” commonly used to express the wish that someone should live a long life, like Moses who lived for 120 years.

My Uncle Moishe is 92, AMU’’Sh!

Gamacht for G’mar Chatimah Tovah

Literally means your final sealing should be good,” commonly used as a greeting between Jews immediately before Kol Nidre and on Yom Kippur.

I hope this is a peaceful year for you, Gamacht.

Sh’’Sh for Shabbat Shalom

Literally means “Shabbat Shalom, commonly used in American youth movements and by Israeli teens as a greeting on Shabbat, most often in text messages.

Sending hugs and kisses, Sh’’Sh!

S’’S for Sof Sof

Literally means end, end,” commonly used to indicate something is over.

S’’S, this president’s term has come to an end!

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