There’s an old language myth that claims posh stands for “port out, starboard home.” According to the tale, the first posh people were wealthy British ship passengers who could afford to book two cabins on their trips to India—one on the port side of the ship, the other on the starboard—to ensure that they had the most comfortable trips, away from the sun, when they headed out and when they returned home.
It’s a neat story, but a fictitious one. In fact, posh is more likely derived from nothing more than a 19th-century slang word for either a showily overdressed dandy or for basic coinage and cash. But the popular “port out starboard home” story makes posh a prime example of a backronym, a word mistakenly presumed to be an acronym. Likewise, golf—supposedly standing for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden”—is another. Tips are paid, according to some, “to insure promptness.” And then there are the old stories about “fornication under consent of the king” and fertilizer being labeled “ship high in transit,” and even that most 21st century of words, bae, is sometimes said to stand for “before anyone else.”
But if those are all backronyms, then what about the genuine acronyms? Well, here are the stories and meanings behind 25 words, names, and titles that you might not have realized actually stand for something.
Not the aga as in “Aga Khan,” this Aga is a type of cast-iron cooking range invented in Sweden in the early 1920s, which became popular in large country houses and middle class homes in the mid-20th century—so much so, in fact, that Aga saga is still a British slang expression for a genre of literature characterized by exaggerated stories set in rural middle class England. The name Aga stands for Aktiebolaget Gasaccumulator, or “The Gas Accumulator Company” in Swedish.
2. Base Jumping
A form of parachuting in which jumpers leap from fixed objects, base jumping started back in the 1980s. It takes its name from the four types of fixtures that you can jump from: building, antenna, span, or Earth.
The next time you’re asked to enter a practically illegible string of characters or numbers into a website to prove that you’re human, it’s worth remembering that Captcha stands for “completely automated public Turing Test to tell computers and humans apart.” (Although unsurprisingly the name was also deliberately coined to sound like capture.)
4. Care Package
The first care packages—or rather, CARE packages—were put together in the aftermath of the Second World War with the aim of providing food relief to war-torn Europe. They were the work of what was then a newly formed humanitarian agency known as the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (later changed to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), founded in 1945.
Not to be confused with ComicCon, Comecon—or the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance—was an economic organization founded in the 1940s that linked all of the Eastern Bloc nations of Eastern Europe. Led throughout its existence by the Soviet Union, Comecon was disbanded in 1991.
Or in other words, diesel oil for “diesel-engined road vehicles.”
Although it’s often misused as simply a synonym for photofit, technically the name E-fit refers only to the computer program used to produce composite pictures of police suspects based on people's descriptions. It stands for “electronic facial identification technique.”
The Gestapo came into being in Nazi Germany in 1933. Its name is an acronym of Geheime Staatspolizei—literally meaning “secret state police.”
American computer scientist Steve Wilhite created the “graphics interchange format,” or gif, in 1987. (And the inventor thinks you should be pronouncing it “jiff,” not “giff.”)
As a measure of the processing speed of computers, the “flop” of words like gigaflop and megaflop stands for “floating-point operations per second.” Originally it was spelled gigaflops (which some people still prefer), but the s was dropped to avoid thinking it was plural.
The former Soviet labor camp's name was an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey, literally “the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps.”
Like deejay and emcee, Humvee is one of a rare group of words formed by a vague attempt to pronounce a string of letters—in this case the acronym HMMWV, standing for “high-mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle.”
The name Pakistan is said to be derived from the Urdu and Persian word pak, meaning “pure.” But when the name was first coined in 1933, the independence activist Choudhry Rahmat Ali also suggested that it worked as an acronym of the five northern regions of British India: Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and, giving it its final few letters, Baluchistan.
If you grew up in the ’90s, you probably played Pogs. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name was an acronym for passion fruit, orange, guava, and was named after a drink in Maui that provided the lids for the first games.
15. and 16. Radar and Sonar
Radar technology was developed in the lead-up to the Second World War. Its name was coined in the 1940s as an acronym of “radio detection and ranging,” and has since been used as a template for the names of other similar technologies, including sonar (“sound navigation and ranging”) and lidar (literally “light radar”).
When you’re scuba diving, you’re using “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.”
18. SIM Card
And the SIM card in your phone is really your “subscriber identification module” card.
19. Smart Car
The Smart Automobile company, now a division of the Daimler organization, began in Germany in the late 1980s. Originally known as the “Swatchmobile” (because the car was developed by the same company that makes Swatch watches), the name Smart car was chosen in the mid-1990s as an acronym of “Swatch Mercedes Art.”
A snafu is a mistake, or a general state of confusion or disarray. It was coined in the early 1940s, apparently by American troops during the Second World War, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “an expression conveying the common soldier’s laconic acceptance of the disorder of war and the ineptitude of his superiors”—namely, “situation normal, all f****d up.”
The Soweto suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, is an acronym of “south-western townships.”
22., 23., and 24. Taser, Laser, and Maser
Taser stands for “Thomas Swift’s electric rifle,” but the notorious electroshock device was actually invented by an engineer named Jack Cover in the late 1960s. Cover decided to name his invention in honor of his childhood hero, Tom Swift, the fictitious star of a series of children’s sci-fi adventure novels. But chances are he also modeled it on laser (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”), which in turn took its name from the even earlier maser technology (“microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”).
25. Zip Code
Zip codes were introduced to the American postal service in 1963 as a means of speeding up the delivery of the mail by dividing the country into identifiable numerical zones. There is some disagreement as to whether the zip of zip code is an acronym or a backronym, but either way it’s said to stand for “zone improvement plan.”
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.
Are you a logophile? Do you want to learn unusual words and old-timey slang to make conversation more interesting, or discover fascinating tidbits about the origins of everyday phrases? Then pick up our new book, The Curious Compendium of Wonderful Words: A Miscellany of Obscure Terms, Bizarre Phrases, & Surprising Etymologies, out June 6! You can pre-order your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or Bookshop.org.