11 acronyms that are actually ‘backronyms’
Everyone knows what an acronym is – an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word, like ‘NASA’ or ‘NATO’ – but not all know what a ‘backronym’ is. While acronyms are formed from phrases or names that exist beforehand, a backronym is an acronym deliberately created to suit a particular word or words, either to create a memorable name, or as a fanciful explanation of a word’s origin.
Backronym has been traced back to a reader’s letter from Meredith G. Williams of Potomac, Maryland that appeared in a 1983 column in the Washington Post, which defined it as ‘the same as an acronym, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters’.
1. SPECTRE | Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion
First appearing in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, the fictional global crime organization SPECTRE led by supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld boasts a fancy backronym, and a darn cool name. One wonders if the organization’s US chapter reverses ‘Extortion’ and ‘Revenge’ to fall in with the American spelling.
2. KRS-One | Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone
The leader of seminal hip hop group Boogie Down Productions, and one of the most revered MCs in rap history, KRS-One took his stage name from his graffiti tag ‘KRS-ONE’, drawn from his name Kris, having added the ‘ONE’ to distinguish himself from others with the tag ‘KRS’. The phrase ‘Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone’ grew out of the tag, which became Parker’s stage name, and the backronym became an enduring part of the group’s story.
3. USA PATRIOT Act | Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act
The crowning (and most famous) example of the recent tendency in US politics to fashion bills as backronyms, the USA PATRIOT Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Micah Cohen provides a nice breakdown of this trend in a blog on the New York Times website.
4. GROSS | Get Rid of Slimy girlS
Any Calvin and Hobbes fan worth their salt is familiar with GROSS, the exclusive club whose only members are Calvin and Hobbes, and which does not extend membership to girls (and, you know, exists primarily to fulfill this purpose). The name, hilariously, is a stretch on a few accounts, the first being the awkward shoehorning of ‘girlS’ and the second that the plural of ‘girls’ is really beside the point, as Susie Derkins is for the most part the only girl ever actively excluded.
5. LISA | Local Integrated Software Architecture
For many years, no one knew for sure what to think about the name of the ‘Lisa’, the personal computer produced by Apple in the early 1980s. Given that Lisa is the name of Jobs’s first child (Lisa Nicole Brennan-Jobs, born in 1978), whose paternity he once contested, it seemed pretty obvious that LISA was just a thinly veiled backronym. Eventually, Jobs made it clear to biographer Walter Isaacson that, indeed, the computer was named after his daughter, and that ‘Local Integrated Software Architecture’ only came afterwards.
6. BASIC | Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code
Using familiar English words and designed – as it spells out so clearly – for beginners, BASIC is a simple high-level computer programming language that was once widely used.
7. SOS | Save Our Ship (Souls)
Save Our Ship! It seems so obvious, but the purported acronym is actually a backronym. The international code signal of extreme distress, SOS was actually chosen for how easy it is to transmit in Morse code.
8. SAD | Seasonal Affective Disorder (or Depression)
SAD refers to depression that is associated with late autumn and winter, and is thought to be caused by a lack of light.
9. APGAR | Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration
The Apgar score comes from the name of Virginia Apgar (1909–74), a US anesthesiologist who developed the method for measuring the physical condition of a newborn infant. You obtain an Apgar score by adding points (0, 1, or 2) for skin coloration (Appearance), heart rate (Pulse), response to stimulation (Grimace), muscle tone (Activity), and respiratory effort (Respiration). A score of ten represents the best possible condition. Way to have a useful last name!
10. AMBER Alert | America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response
In the US, an AMBER Alert refers to an emergency response system that sends out information about a missing person (usually a child) by media broadcasts or electronic roadway signs. The name came from Amber Hagerman, a child kidnapped in Texas in 1996.
11. POSH | Port Outbound, Starboard Home
POSH is frequently trotted out as a cool etymology, although it is sadly not true. The story goes that wealthy passengers travelling by boat between England and India would have had POSH written on their bookings, standing for ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’, indicating the more desirable cabins, on the shady side of the ship. Researchers for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) have done their share of sleuthing, including interviews with former travelers, but have not managed to verify any aspect of this story. For more on the origin of posh, see What is the origin of the word ‘posh’?