21 September 2019

Acronyms and Backronyms

by John M. Floyd

Today I don't want to talk about mysteries or novels or movies or short stories or the writing process . . . but I do want to talk about words. Specifically about three kinds of words: initials, acronyms, and something called backronyms--and things that I found interesting about them. Bear with me, here.


Definition: The first letters of a name or of words forming part of a phrase.

Most are instantly familiar to us as readers and writers: FBI, CIA, IBM, JFK, LBJ, BYOB, POW, MIA, ADHD, DOA, DOB, SUV, UFO, AKA, DVD, TNT, TGIF, DNA, AM/PM, CST, YTD, ETA, MBA, VP, CEO, IQ, IOU, FDIC, IRS, ATM, AARP, BS, NFL, PGA, CBS, NBC, UHF/VHF, and many, many others. And, more recently, OMG, WTF, BFF, LOL, IMO, IMHO, TMI, BTW, FYI, BCC, and so on.

The words associated with some initials, though, are not so well known:

CVS -- Consumer Value Stores

BMW -- Bavarian Motor Works

WD-40 -- Water Displacement--40th Attempt

3M -- Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing

ESPN -- Entertainment and Sports Programming Network

FAO Schwartz -- Frederick August Otto Schwartz

M&Ms -- Mars and Murrie's

CD-ROM -- Compact Disk Read-Only Memory

RSVP -- Respondez S'il Vous Plait

NOTE: These are not acronyms, because they aren't actual words. The term here is initialism.

Something that's also interesting, I think, is that there are now so many shortened words--abbreviations that have become, in some cases, more familiar than the expanded versions: limo, ad, photo, dorm, stats, hippo, rhino, email, ref, grad, exam, decaf, memo, lube, auto, flu, gator, croc, rep, sub, gym, vet, fridge, bike, semi, sitcom, deli, combo, etc. I doubt that some younger folks even know what a limousine is.


Definition: A pronounceable word formed by the initial letters or other parts of several words.

Again, some acronyms and their component words are well known: POTUS, NASA, ASAP, MADD, AIDS, NATO, etc.

In other cases, we might know the acronym better than we know its parts. Examples:

NERF -- Non-Expandable Recreational Foam

TASER -- Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle

LASER -- Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

RADAR -- RAdio Detection And Ranging

SONAR -- SOund Navigation And Ranging

SCUBA -- Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

CANOLA oil -- CANada Oil, Low Acid

CARE package -- Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (later changed to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere)

PAM -- Product of Arthur Meyerhoff

GEICO -- Government Employees Insurance Company

NABISCO -- NAtional BIScuit COmpany

NASDAQ -- National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotation

SNAFU -- Situation Normal, All F***ed Up

AWOL -- Absent WithOut Leave

HUMVEE -- High Mobility Multi-purpose wheeled Vehicle (actually HMMWV)

SWAT -- Special Weapons and Tactics

KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid

BIT -- BInary digiT

PIN -- Personal Identification Number

MODEM -- MOdulator/DEModulator

JPEG -- Joint Photographic Experts Group

SIM card -- Subscriber Identification Module card

SPAM -- Shoulder of Pork And Ham, or SPiced hAM

AFLAC -- American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus

EPCOT -- Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or Every Person Comes Out Tired)


Definition: A constructed, deliberately formed word whose initial letters are made to fit a previously determined word or phrase. They may be invented with either serious or humorous intent, and are sometimes called reverse acronyms. Examples:

GROSS -- Get Rid Of Slimy girlS (from Calvin and Hobbes)

TEA Party -- Taxed Enough Already

ZIP code -- Zone Improvement Plan

BASE jumping -- Building, Antenna, Span, or Earth (fixtures you can jump from)

SHERLOCK -- Sherlock Holmes Enthusiastic Readers League Of Criminal Knowledge

RALPH -- Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners

BISON -- Biodiversity Serving Our Nation

COLTS -- Consumer On-Line Transaction System (named for the then-Baltimore football team)

JOVIAL -- Jules's Own Version of International Algebraic Language

GEORGE -- Georgetown Environmentalists Organization against Rats, Garbage, and Emissions

NOISE -- Neighbors Opposed to Irritating Sound Emissions

COBRA -- Cabinet Office Briefing Room A

And, from movies/TV:

SPECTRE -- the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion

UNCLE -- United Netword Command for Law and Enforcement

THRUSH -- Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity

KABOOM -- Key Atomic Benefits Organization Of Mankind (from the Naked Gun movies)

MASH -- Mobile Army Surgical Hospital

FIST -- Federated InterState Truckers

WALL-E -- Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class

RED -- Retired, Extremely Dangerous

CHUD -- Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller

Some backronyms are misleading (words mistakenly believed to be acronyms). Examples:

SOS -- Does not mean "Save Our Ship." It was chosen merely because its letters have a simple Morse code representation (three dots, three dashes, three dots).

YAHOO -- Did not come from "Yet Another Hierarchical Official Oracle." Its founders liked the word's meaning of "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth," from Gulliver's Travels.

COP -- Is not "Constable On Patrol."

NEWS -- Is not "North, East, West, and South."

CABAL -- Did not come from King Charles II's five ministers: Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale. Its use predated them.

POSH -- Is not "Port Out, Starboard Home." It's derived from a word for "overdressed dandy."

GOLF -- Is not "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden."

PING -- Is not "Packet InterNet Groper." It's a utility to test (via packets) connectivity between computers.

WIKI -- Is not "What I Know Is." It's derived from the Hawaiian wiki-wiki, meaning fast.

TIP -- Is not "To Insure Promptness."

ADIDAS -- Did not come from "All Day I Dream About Sports." Its founder was Adolf "Adi" Dassler.

AMBER alert -- Did not come from "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response." It was actually named after a missing child, Amber Hagerman.

Some goofy backronyms:

FORD -- Fix Or Repair Daily

BING -- Because It's Not Google

NAVY -- Never Again Volunteer Yourself

DELTA -- Don't Ever Leave the Airport, or Don't Expect Luggage To Arrive

In closing, two of my favorite acronyms/backronyms from my days in the Air Force;

FIGMO -- A soldier who's happily being discharged or transferred (F*** It, I Got My Orders)

OMGIF (FIGMO spelled backward) -- A soldier whose expected discharge/transfer was canceled (Oh My God, I been F***ed)

And a backcronym I found for Lee Iacocca: I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation America. (Couldn't resist mentioning that one.)

OK, FYI, I'm off to the ATM, and then I'm AWOL for two weeks.  See you then.


  1. Thank you, Professor Floyd. This is useful. You educated me on a buncha these. Cool.

  2. Well, I was totally unaware of the meaning of CANOLA oil. I thought they just made up something because it would be pretty hard to sell Rapeseed Oil in today's world.
    Thanks for quite a list!

  3. O'Neil and Eve -- Mostly I just had fun scouting around and finding out about these. (I didn't know about CANOLA either.) Wordplay like this is a lot of fun. Take care, both of you!

  4. Speaking of Backronyms: When I moved to Waco, shortly after the David Koresh incident, I learned that Waco stood for We Ain't Comin' Out.

  5. Good stuff. My father was a member of the Lions Club and at a young age I asked if it was an acronym (of course I didn't use that term). He said, yes: Liberty, Integrity, Our Nation's Service. But he admitted that that was a backronym (although, of course, he didn't use that term either).

    On library school I had a professor who delighted in treating initialisms as acronyms and vice versa. Most memorably he referred to the American Library Association, which everyone called ALA, as Allah.

  6. I like that one, Michael!

    Rob, that brings to mind the Journal of American Medical Association, which many folks pronounce as a word that rhymes with comma. And I suspect almost every multi-letter organization comes up with a backronym, sooner or later.

    BTW, It's funny how far some places/organizations will go to come up with a unique name/ititialism/backronym. I played several rounds on a local golf course years ago before I realized that its name, Niknar, was the name of our county (Rankin) spelled backwards. Afterward I used to joke that the folks who founded the course probably sang Leon, Leon at Christmastime.

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

  7. A lot of these I didn't know, John. You left out BOAT, which those who own one know stands for "Break Out Another Thousand."

    During the years I taught for the University of Maryland on American military bases in Europe and the Middle East, faculty were evaluated at the end of every semester by way of what was officially called the SOCRATES form. I wish I could remember the complete backronym, but I know it was something along the lines of "Student Opinions: Course Reaction And Teaching Effectiveness Survey."

  8. Fun post. I learned a new one recently. With oil in the news, I saw lots of references to something called RBOB (pronounced as the word “R-BOB”), an indicator of the future price of gasoline. Spoiler alert: prices are going up but not as much as initially feared.

    But what the heck does RBOB stand for that’s related to gasoline? “Reformulated Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending.” Wouldn’t have been my first guess.

  9. Ha! I like BOAT, Josh, and no I didn't include it because I hadn't heard it. Thanks.

    Don't even get me started, on military acronyms. Most of them made about as much sense as SOCRATES. I remember two particularly crazy ones: CINCPAC and CINCLANT, for Commander-in-Chief Pacific Forces and Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Forces. OR something like that. And IBM, where I was employed for thirty years, had just as many acro/backronyms as the Service did, and just as goofy.

  10. Hey Peter--Didn't see your note, just now. I'll have to remember RBOB. Must've been a former military guy who came up with that one.

  11. John, your piece was pure TNT (Thoughtful, Not Trivial)!

  12. Larry, you clever devil. I'm not sure how thoughtful it was, or how trivial it wasn't, but glad you liked it!

  13. You missed a very close cousin to SNAFU, one for when SNAFU is not completely descriptive--FUBAR, or F**ked Up Beyond All Recognition.

  14. Yep, you're right, Don. And FUBAB, which is Beyond All Belief. Often used, during my college days, to describe the performance of our football team.

  15. Youngest child received a three day suspension in Elemenatary school for repeatedly telling classmates that DARE (Drug Abuse and Resistance Education) stood for Drugs Are Really Exciting. Apparently Scott had gone around and told a bunch of kids this and now teachers were hearing it all over Centennial Elementary.

    This had to be dealt with at once as the fate of the free world and American Pie were at stake.

    During the resulting parent teacher conference with his teacher, the principal, his counselor, and 7 other people including some lady from the Administration building, I was told very sternly that laughing out loud when being told was not the approrpiate parental response.


  16. I'll have to remember that one, Kevin. Sounds like the school will remember you and Scott for awhile.

    Thanks for that story!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>