Word Nerd: Backronyms
4 years ago
Did you know that posh is from the acronym Port outward, starboard home? Or that the Australian slang pom is from Prisoner of Her Majesty? Or – possibly my favourite – that fuck is short for Fornication under consent of the King?
Backronyms Aren’t Canon Knowledge
An acronym is, of course, a pronounceable word formed from the first letters of the words of a phrase,* like AIDS, LASER or ASBO. In today’s largely literate world, there are fucking thousands of the things. It’s understandable; we read and write from infancy, we think in the written word.
A backronym† is sort of the other way around; it’s where you start with an existing word and reverse-engineer an acronym around it, choosing words to fit the spelling. It’s sometimes done for comic effect, like Fix or repair daily from Ford, and sometimes to be evocative, like a certain notorious act in US law being named PATRIOT.
But sometimes a backronym can get confused with the origin of a word, or even be deliberately invented and presented as an origin. In that form it becomes – yes – it’s a form of folk etymology, a thing I’ve mentioned once or twice on this blog.
You’ll hear these all the time, presented as solid fact, often by the same buggers that insist the moon landing was faked. And often, it’s for the words with hard-to-trace etymologies, so it’s hard to say with certainty that they’re not true.
They’re not, though.
Straight up: if anyone gives you an etymology for a word that involves it being an acronym, it’s almost certainly complete balls. Because, frankly, English speakers just didn’t think in acronyms until recent years. They’re a product of ubiquitous literacy, and before the advent of public education in the late nineteenth century, they just weren’t a thing. Like, okay, some acronyms have respectable history – the Calvinist TULIP dates back to about 1905, and the Catholic INRI may date back to ancient times – but generally they’re a very modern phenomenon.
Utter Some Examples, Dave
So here are some of my favourites.
- Fuck. As above, often presented as Fornication under consent of the King, or Forced unlawful carnal knowledge. In fact, fuck has existed in English since about 1500, and has always had its current meaning. There’s a similar-sounding German word (fich) that dates back further, and a couple of other theories going all the way back to the Indo-European language.
- Chav. Popularly Council-housed and violent, which goes to show that the backronym’s just as classist as the term’s popular use, but the best bet is the Romani chavva, meaning a young boy.
- Pom. My own country’s charming slang for English folk, sometimes suggested (by English people) as coming from Prisoner of Her Majesty, which supposedly emblazoned the uniforms of penal colonists, the joke being – Hahahahaha! – that it originally referred to Australians themselves! But, of course, there were no uniforms. There are a number of possible real candidates for this one, but the most likely is a childish play on the similar-sounding words immigrant and pomegranate.
- Posh. As mentioned before, supposedly from Port outward, starboard home, from the cooler and more comfortable cabins on sailing ships. Except no. Very likely it comes from the Romani posh-koorana, for “half a crown,” because that was the general yardstick for “more money than a poor person would ever be carrying.”
- Wog. Actually kind of uncomfortable even typing this term, which supposedly derived from Westernised oriental gentleman (again, emblazoned on workman’s uniforms, which, again, didn’t actually exist). Actually, most likely derived from the golliwog doll (which surprised me, as I thought the doll was named after the slang).
- Naff. A lovely low-key English slur meaning basically “a little bit crap,” this is sometimes said to have originated in a Polari (the slang of, among other things, mid-Twentieth-century London gay subculture) acronym meaning Not available for fucking. But while the term’s origins are uncertain, the Polari use is definitely a backronym; it’s most likely that naff, in the form naff off, is just a very slightly bowdlerised eff off (ie. “F” off), suggesting “fuck off.”
Those are the examples that come to mind, but if you want any other backronyms scrutinised, send ’em in!
*If it’s unpronounceable, as in NASUWT or DHCP, it’s technically an initialism, as I recently discovered. Although it’s common, of course, to use the term acronym in both cases, it’s apparently incorrect. The things you learn, huh? Newspapers, generally, set initialisms in all-caps and acronyms with only an initial capital, but I prefer to always use all-caps unless the acronym’s so well-used it’s not really an acronym anymore.
†As coined in 1983 in the Washington Post. I love that fucking word.