Why you’re probably wrong about acronyms
Admittedly, quite a few words in 21st-century English did begin life as acronyms. Some you may know about (like scuba, short for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) and some you might not (like canola, short for Canadian oil, low acid), but, overwhelmingly, all of these words share two things in common:
- they came into existence in the twentieth or twenty-first century
- they refer to an object or activity in a technical or commercial context
These qualifications are worth specifying because perhaps the most insidiously widespread type of phony etymology is the claim that a word is secretly an acronym for a longer phrase. One of the best known examples of this is posh, which, as we’ve explained, supposedly stands for port out, starboard home, referring to the location of the most desirable cabins aboard cruise ships. But posh is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are 8 more acronym etymologies that are not altogether based in fact.
- An alteration of babe or baby, bae is not in fact short for ‘before anyone else’, though the belief that it is may have contributed to its widespread popularity in online communities, where everyone loves a good abbreviation or initialism.
- Of Germanic origin, meaning ‘to strike’, fuck is not short for ‘for unlawful carnal knowledge’ or ‘fornication under command of the king’. The first abbreviation supposedly relates to publicly shaming criminals; the second to raping and pillaging during the medieval era. Both are admirably debunked by snopes.com.
- Probably related to the Dutch kolf, meaning ‘club, bat’, golf is not short for ‘gentlemen only, ladies forbidden’. (This is despite the fact that at least 8 major golf clubs in the US and Scotland still don’t admit women!)
- From the Greek kōma, meaning ‘deep sleep’, coma is not short for ‘cessation of motor activity’.
- Most likely a respelling of fat, the slang term phat is not short for ‘pretty, hot, and tempting’, ‘pretty hips and thighs’ or any other variation thereof.
- Of Germanic origin in exactly the same sense we use it today, shit has never been an used as an abbreviation for ‘ship high in transit’. This folk etymology relies on the extremely dubious idea that sailors needed to be warned to avoid letting cargo containing manure get wet, as this would worsen its smell.Perhaps from an obsolete sense of the verb tip, meaning ‘to touch lightly’, the tip you leave for your waiter is not short for ‘to insure promptness’.
- Unlike the East Asian racial term fob (from ‘fresh off the boat’), the offensive slur for an Italian immigrant wop is not short for ‘without papers’ or ‘without passport’. It is most likely a corruption of the Italian word guappo meaning ‘bold, showy’.
Of course, the temptation of such etymologies is understandable. There is something inherently alluring about the idea that an esoteric meaning has been hidden in plain sight, literally spelled out to you in the letters of an everyday word. Perhaps at some level, the popularity of such explanations might also owe something to the disappointing reality that the origins of many words are not as interesting or well established as we’d like them to be. And, admittedly, contemporary English does have a veritable penchant for backronyms. (The astronomical term WIMP, short for weakly interacting massive particle, is a personal favorite.) So it’s not surprising that many people would believe that the history of acronyms is considerably older than is really the case. Despite their appeal today, for most of English history such formations were extremely unlikely.
As David Wilton explains in the third chapter of his book Word Myths, the practice of coining words from the initial letters of longer phrases is a very new practice in English, dating to no earlier than the late nineteenth century. And beyond this, genuine coinages of acronyms almost always arise in contexts where the creator of the word is apt to be thinking self-consciously about the name he or she is coining, as when something has been invented, discovered, or sold on the market for the first time. As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) is an acronym, whereas posh is not.