25 Words That Are Actually Acronyms

iStock.com/Jman78
iStock.com/Jman78

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.

1. AGA

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.

3. CAPTCHA

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.

5. COMECON

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.

6. DERV

Or in other words, diesel oil for “diesel-engined road vehicles.”

7. E-FIT

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.”

8. GESTAPO

The Gestapo came into being in Nazi Germany in 1933. Its name is an acronym of Geheime Staatspolizei—literally meaning “secret state police.”

9. GIF

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.”)

10. GIGAFLOP

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.

11. Gulag

The former Soviet labor camp's name was an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey, literally the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps.

12. HUMVEE

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.”

13. PAKISTAN

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.

14. POG

If you grew up in the '90s, you probably played Pogs. But according to the OED, 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”).

17. SCUBA

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

Now a division of the Daimler organization, the Smart Automobile company 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.”

20. SNAFU

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.”

21. SOWETO

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.”

This article originally appeared in 2015.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, event though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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