by Prof. Shalom Karni / In its latest supplement, that venerable authority on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), gives legitimacy to several Internet-born acronyms. Among them are WAG (wives and girlfriends, when referring to the entourage of celebrities), LOL (laughing out loud), and OMG (Oh my God). True to its meticulous search for sources, the OED mentions that the acronym OMG was first used in 1917—some time before the Internet—by a British naval officer.

The OED and Rashi

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by Prof. Shlomo Karni

Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).

In its latest supplement, that venerable authority on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), gives legitimacy to several Internet-born acronyms. Among them are WAG (wives and girlfriends, when referring to the entourage of celebrities), LOL (laughing out loud), and OMG (Oh my God).

True to its meticulous search for sources, the OED mentions that the acronym OMG was first used in 1917—some time before the Internet—by a British naval officer.

When it comes to modern acronyms with an old heritage, the OED has nothing on our rabbinic literature [1]. Consider, for example, the verse: “Abraham planted a tamarisk in Be’er Sheva” (Gen. 21: 33). The Hebrew word for ‘tamarisk’ is ‘eshel’, spelled ‘aleph, shin, lamed’.

Rashi’s commentary in tractate Sotah 10a relies on Abraham’s fame as a gracious host—after all, he served lunch to God (Gen.18:1-9)—and interprets ‘eshel’ as the acronym for ‘achilah, sh’tiyah, linah (or: l’vaya)’, that is, ’food, drink, sleep’(or: company). In other words, it was not a tamarisk but a roadside inn built by Abraham for weary wayfarers. A similar interpretation, without the acronym but with a permutation of letters of ‘eshel’, is found in Bereishit Rabba on Gen. 21:33.

Contemporary Hebrew uses the same acronym, ‘eshel’, preceded by the word ‘d’mey’ (‘cost of’), as the expression for ‘per diem expenses’. And, we might add, this acronym was first used as early as the 11th century—eons before the Internet—not by some anonymous person, but by the great Rashi.

Not too shabby, OED, eh? LOL.


[1] See, e.g., Avraham Itzhak Stern, “Rashey Teyvot” (1926)—listing some 16,000 acronyms. Can be found at: www.daat.co.il

About Shlomo Karni

8 comments

  1. Very good, so long as we bear in mind that any acronym is a drush- Tanach doesn’t know about them. (Ditto gematria, by the way.)

  2. Interesting. I would point out that in Hebrew each letter has its own spiritual and numerical (gematria) significance. Therefore the aacronym takes on a meaning all its own, independent of the words that make up the acronym. For the inner significance of the Hebrew letters see Resh Millin by Harav Kook ZTZL.

  3. Tanach know nothing of gematria, but atbash is a different story.

  4. Yes, there are atbashes in Yirmiya. On the other hand, there is some evidence in Tanach that the order of the Aleph-beit was not exactly what we have today, at least not universally.

  5. Isn’t “Rashi” itself a better example of an early acronym? For how long have Jews referred to their chachamim by their initials, as opposed to their proper names?

  6. “there is some evidence in Tanach that the order of the Aleph-beit was not exactly what we have today, at least not universally.”

    http://seforim.traditiononline.org/index.cfm/2009/7/26/The_PehAyin_Order_in_the_Acrostics_of_the_Book_of_Eichah

  7. The word “Passover,” coined by William Tyndale in 1520, is based on one of Rashi’s two glosses on “Pesach.”

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