Showing posts with label acronyms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label acronyms. Show all posts

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.

15 March 2014


by John M. Floyd

Like many writers, I enjoy wordplay of almost any kind: rhymes, puzzles, riddles, puns, etc. And Fran's mention the other day of Lynne Truss and her wonderful Eats, Shoots and Leaves made me remember something that I haven't thought about in some time.

I'm one of those people who like clever titles for books, stories, and movies. Examples: Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, A Hearse of a Different Color, The Scoreless Thai, The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker. My alltime favorite is probably Apocalypse Pretty Soon. I also like titles that were so mysterious I didn't even know what they meant until later in the story, like Rain Man, Catch-22, The Green Mile, The Prince of Tides, Cool Hand Luke, The Dead Zone, and Dances With Wolves.

Sometimes those you'll-find-out-what-it-means-later titles are acronyms--words that are formed by the initial letters or groups of letters in a phrase, like SCUBA or RADAR or NATO--and that can make the effect even better. Everyone knows by now what M.A.S.H and S.W.A.T. stand for, but when I went to see the movies Wall-E, F.I.S.T, TRON, and RED, I didn't have a clue that they referred to Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class, Federated InterState Truckers, The Real-time Operating system Nucleus, and Retired, Extremely Dangerous. (Oh, and I didn't mention C.H.U.D., which translates to Cannabalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller.)

Crying U.N.C.L.E.

Acronyms within titles, or within the stories themselves, can also be interesting. One of the first that ever caught my attention--I thought it was cool, because as a little kid I thought Napoleon Solo was cool--was the one for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. And the villains that the man From U.N.C.L.E. fought were employed by an equally wordy outfit: T.H.R.U.S.H., the Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity. Other spooky organizations in that era were Bond's old enemy SPECTRE (the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion); Matt Helm's company, I.C.E. (Intelligence and Counter-Espionage); and our man Derek Flint's employer, Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage). Since I'm already knee-deep in all this, I should probably also mention Marvel Comics' S.H.I.E.L.D., which has had several meanings over the years. (I won't burden you with them; just plug in words from those given above--you get the idea.) Not that it matters, but Maxwell Smart's boss (CONTROL) and his archenemy K.A.O.S. weren't smart enough to have expanded names and therefore were not acronyms at all.

My favorites, besides Z.O.W.I.E., are probably K.A.B.O.O.M., the Key Atomic Benefits Organization
Of Mankind, from one of the Naked Gun movies, and G.R.O.S.S., or Get Rid Of Slimy GirlS, from Calvin and Hobbes. Those preferences alone should give you a pretty good idea of my level of intelligence.

I've Been Motivated

Goofy acronyms are of course not limited to TV shows, comic strips, spy novels, and movies. My two primary employers in my life have been IBM Corporation and the U.S. Air Force, and between them they have possibly generated more acronyms than the rest of the free world combined. My wife once said to me, after overhearing my end of a phone call with the computer guys at one of my IBM customers' locations, "Do any of you ever speak English?" Her question was understandable: the entire conversation had been full of words like VTAM, DB2, Oracle, UNIX, CICS, Domino, RAID, OS/MVS, etc. At one point I think we even discussed SPOOLing, which meant Simultaneous Peripheral Operations On-Line. As Stephanie Plum would say, Jeez Louise.

One of the IBM acronyms that I liked was the old ATM program COLTS, which stood for Consumer On-Line Transaction System. The software was developed in Baltimore, and was named for the then-Baltimore Colts football team. Oddly enough, a lot of financial institutions' customer-delivery programs over the years have had cute nicknames; one ATM system was called Harvey the Wall Banker. And I remember that when plans were being made for a teller automation system at the Nashville-based First American National Bank, some smartaleck suggested in a planning meeting that they name it First American Remote Teller. Fortunately, the "Remote" was changed to "Automated," and it became the FAAT system instead. Not exactly a snappy acronym, but certainly more acceptable.

No time for insurgents

As for military lingo, I watched In Harm's Way on DVD the other night, and John Wayne and crew were always talking about Sink-Pak, spelled CINCPAC (Commander-IN-Chief, U.S. PAcific Command, who turned out to be Henry Fonda), along with a dozen other examples of alphabet soup. More currently, and in real life, there's now some dude with the incredible title CDRUSPACOM (CommanDeR, U.S. PAcific COMmand). And of course there's always the most famous acronym of all, taught to us by shows like The West Wing and House of Cards: POTUS.

One personal story. When I was in the Air Force in the 1970s, I was at one time stationed at a support base with folks assigned mostly to two groups: Engineering and Installation. The prefix for all organizations at the base was EI, followed by another E or I depending on which side of the mission fence you were on, so all our departments began with the letters EIE or EII. I was on the engineering side, and one of my extra duties (most military personnel are saddled with "extra duty" designations) was Information Officer for the group. So, although it's more of an abbreviation than an acronym, one of my titles during this wild and crazy period in my life was--you guessed it--EIEIO. With a cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there . . .

The funniest two acronyms I remember from the Air Force were related to a person's duty station and his state of mind. You probably won't find it hard to believe that many servicemen (and women) were not always fond of their locations, and sometimes they requested orders to transfer out, or to leave the military entirely. When their requests had been granted, they were said to be FIGMO, and usually walked around with a laid-back, happy-go-lucky attitude, as in "Why's Joe smiling all the time?" "Oh, he's FIGMO." The acronym meant **** it, I've Got My Orders. Occasionally, though, these sent-from-heaven orders got cancelled, and when that happened, one moped around with slumped shoulders and a long face. In that case, the affected party was said to be OMGIF, which is FIGMO spelled backward: "Why's Lester dragging around, today?" "Haven't you heard? He's OMGIF." It meant Oh My God, I've been ****ed. Sometimes it's strange the things you remember, from forty years ago.

A story by any other name

In closing, I do realize that this is a mystery/suspense blog, and that I've strayed some distance off the written path, so I have a question. Do any of you Sayers of Sleuth recall a mystery/crime story or novel or movie whose title is an acronym? The only ones I could remember were S.W.A.T. and RED. And have any of you ever used an acronym in your titles? I can see how it'd be effective, but I've never done it.

Maybe I need to watch some more M.A.S.H. episodes.