What's a Backronym?

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It's like an acronym, except the words are chosen to fit the letters rather than the other way around. The term was coined in 1983, part of a monthly neologism contest held by the Washington Post. (I'm not sure if we can call a word that's been around for thirty years a "neo"-logism anymore -- what's the statute of limitations on that?) A quick and probably needless refresher: acronyms are words created using letters from an already-existing phrase. For instance, "Radio Detection and Ranging" was the name of a technology which became popularly shortened into the acronym RADAR. Backronyms work the other way around. One creepy example -- you're all familiar with AMBER alerts, the child abduction bulletins that go out across cities when kids have been snatched? (In LA they flash across freeway billboards at least once a month.) Officially, AMBER stands for "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response," but that's actually a backronym invented to fit the name "Amber," after Amber Hagerman, a Texas girl whose 1996 abduction and murder led to the program's formation.

Alcoholics Anonymous uses a few backronyms, as well. They function as ironic mnemonic devices, almost; they backronymed word "slip" to mean "Sobriety Losing its Priority." (Great band name: ironic Mnemonic.) Many times, backronyms help create a false etymology for a word -- something I covered in last week's post on a word that many people falsely believe is an acronym for Ship High in Transit. Another one of these backronymic folk etymologies? For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I hate to quash that one, but its supposed medieval origins as an acronym are total bunko; acronyms were rarely used prior to the twentieth century.

Another folk etymology -- one I hadn't heard of -- is POSH, meaning fancy rich person, or the wife of a famous soccer player. Its supposed origin was the phrase "Port Out, Starboard Home," referring to the most expensive first-class cabins on trans-Atlantic ships, which would've been on the side of the ship shaded from direct sun, assuming you set sail from Europe (as all the poshest people do). Interesting, but etymologically false. We're not sure where the word "posh" comes from, though it may be derived from the Urdu safed-p??h, meaning "one who wears white robes." (I guess white robes were the old-school Urdu equivalent of $600 Prada sneakers today.)

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January 31, 2011 - 5:50am
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