Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986.

Elegant and fashionable people from high social classes are called posh, which was Victoria Beckham’s choice (Posh Spice). It is also the name of a pedigreed cow recently sold at auction for a record-setting £262,000. The owner said the name was no reference to a bovine Victoria, but an homage to the heifer’s mother, Gingerspice.

Most people know the origin of the word posh derived from ship travel between England and India more than 100 years ago.

As goes the oft-told tale, wealthy, pale-faced Brits preferred their staterooms to be on the side away from the sun. The more desirable shady side of the ship was the port side leaving England and the starboard side returning home. Long before this seemingly plausible explanation was advanced, researchers for the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary found posh was first used as a slang term for money and then later described people who had lots of it: well-off, well-dressed dandies. The origin of the English word was related to the Roman word for half-penny and the Urdu word for the white robes worn by the wealthy. Posh had nothing to do with Port Outbound, Starboard Home.

So posh is not a well-known acronym, but a little-known backronym. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s take a closer look at acronyms.

Acronyms are pronounceable words formed by combining the first letters (and sometimes more) of a multi-part name, such as NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; asap, meaning as soon as possible; and NABISCO, the National Biscuit Company. True acronyms are not only pronounceable but also new words in their own right. They’ve gotten out of hand, too. There are more than 5 million acronyms in use today, most of which are just initials and not acronyms at all.

In 1940, a new technology was developed for radio detection and ranging. We know it as radar.

Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan developed a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus they called scuba. Radar and scuba are so ingrained in common language that few know they are real acronyms – pronounceable, spelled-out words with meanings behind the letters.

Right after World War II, the humanitarian relief agency Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe delivered packages of food to the millions of innocent people whose homes and lives had been devastated by the war. Today a care package means a parcel containing useful or pleasurable items from home for needy recipients far away.

In 1987, computer scientist Steve Wilhite created the graphics interchange format. We call it a GIF. Many pronounce it with a hard G, but Wilhite says it’s pronounced like the peanut butter.

Badly confused and chaotic situations are called snafus, military slang from 1941 meaning situation normal, all fouled up, a bowdlerized definition, to be sure. 

When you go the automatic teller machine, you are prompted to enter your personal identification number.

As the purpose of acronyms is to make references shorter and easier, it is curious that so many refer to the ATM machine, which would be ATMM, and their PIN numbers, which would be PINN.

Some say zip code is an acronym that stands for zone improvement plan, although there is no evidence to support the claim, a clear clue to it being a backronym, like rap, which uninformed revisionists like to say stands for rhythm and poetry.

A favorite is UAU (ooo-ow), which stands for Unnecessary Acronym Use.

Writing in CEO Insider, Gabrielle Dolan tells us a client was reading a lengthy report jam-packed with acronyms and including an extensive glossary that explained the meaning of each. Frustrated, the executive asked for the report to be rewritten without acronyms. The new report was easier to read and understand, of course.

An acronym is not to be confused with an intialism, also created to more quickly describe something.

Acronyms are a series of letters that become new words that are pronounceable; a list of initials does not make a pronounceable word. We all know NASA, and many of us know it is an acronym that stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. USAF stands for the United States Air Force, but it is not a new word, nor does anyone refer to the U.S. Air Force as the yoo-saff, which makes it an initialism. No one says fuh-buy when referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigation – we call it the eff-bee-eye. These are initialisms, words formed from first letters of other words, but pronounced letter by letter: IRS, ESP, POW.

Some think Adidas, a shoe-making FIFA sponsor, is an acronym, but it’s not.

It does not stand for All Day I Dream About Soccer. Adidas is a portmanteau word made from the inventor-owner’s name, Adolph Dassler, called Adi by his friends. If you give it just a moment’s thought, you know all day long I dream about soccer makes no sense at all for two very simple reasons, obvious to those who have learned to take a closer look at things.

  1. The United States refers to the game as soccer while the rest of the world calls it football (ADIDAF, right?). 
  2.  All day long I dream about soccer is an English construct and Adidas is a German company, so the native language acronym would have been DGTTIVF (Den ganzen Tag träume ich vom Fußball), not an acronym at all.

You may remember how Humpty Dumpty talked about “two meanings packed up in one word.”

Portmanteau words are special because by blending two or more words or parts of words, they express some combination of the meaning of their parts. The word was conscripted from a piece of luggage with two opposite compartments, like the steamer trunks used by posh travelers, with one side for things that went in drawers and the other for hanging clothes. Here are just a few: motel, infomercial, parasailing, Labradoodle, camcorder, McMansion, smog, and, of course, backronym.  

Backronyms are words chosen to represent individual letters rather than the other way around.

They are always fictitious and always chosen after the fact in attempts to explain or justify the shortened version. Here are a few: Save Our Ship is believed by most to be the meaning behind the emergency call SOS. It sounds plausible, but it isn’t true. Those letters were chosen because back in those days, shipboard radiomen (note to the Pronoun Police – all shipboard naval personnel were men in 1905) used Morse code to communicate.

SOS was an easily recognized sequence that could not be misinterpreted as being a message for anything else. It was transmitted as dot-dot-dot (S), dash-dash-dash (O), dot-dot-dot (S). They could just as easily chosen OSO, but didn’t.

The occasional backronym is intentionally spoofing and snarky. FIAT does not stand for Fix it again, Tony, in spite of what the unlikely cult figures Tom & Ray Magliozzi may have told you.

Author Daven Hiskey tells us that when Howard Cunningham first arrived in Hawaii on a visit, he was directed by an airport employee to take the wiki wiki bus. He was told wiki meant quick in Hawaiian, and repeating the word gave it additional emphasis. Howard, you may know, invented a new web platform that he called wiki wiki, which was later shortened to one word and now means a collaboratively edited hypertext publication, or CEHP, pronounced kepp. Just kidding. Wiki definitely does not mean what I know is.

Just to show how things go, there is now a site that generates online backronyms. Here is what it generated for backronym: Beetle-browed Adventitious Class-conscious Keratodermia Checkmating by Ray Openly Nursing one Year-round Memoir.

Sincerely yours,

Discarded Awnless Vellication Intriguing by Disengagement Apivorous Lopsided Loyang Advised from the Nederland Vivacious Atmospheric Nouveau-riche Nanophthalmolic Overdriving one Straplike Triviality Rhapsodically Appraising a Nonsensical Divide, Widowed Reflexive Irrational Threw on an Encrusted Reply at LTACL (ell-tackle).

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