Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to say a whole word. That’s why the good British public have taken abbreviations to their hearts so willingly. Many people talk about ‘quotes’ instead of ‘quotations’, ‘info’ rather than ‘information’, ‘R-Patz’ in place of ‘Robert Pattinson’. . . yes? Anyone?
And then there is the acronym, an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word. (By contrast, an initialism – likeOED for Oxford English Dictionary – remains pronounced as separate letters.) The acronym creates one handy little word, saving the time needed to say them all individually, and giving you more time to do the important things in life like reading books and eating cake.
Occasionally an acronym disguises itself so successfully that we forget it isan acronym. Here are five examples of words that you might not have known hid other words within them. . .
Often used derogatively, ‘quango’ refers to an administrative body connected to the government, but outside the civil service. Which, considering it sounds like it ought to be a tropical fruit drink, might come as a bit of a disappointment. Maybe they should just call a spade a spade – or, in this case, call a quango a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization.
The earliest record of ‘scuba’ in the OED is from 1952, where it appeared as SCUBA – a snappy way of referring to self-contained underwater breathingapparatus. The upper-case letters have more popularly become lower-case, as the word becomes more familiar with water-lovers around the world.
If you were a child in the 90s, chances are that you played with Pogs. It seems oddly quaint that we were content, in that 20th-century world, to flip little disks of cardboard about, often without any very definite understanding of the rules and no intention of adhering to them. But did you know that ‘Pog’ is an acronym? It derives from ‘passion fruit, orange, guava’, the trademark for a Hawaiian juice drink, the lids of which provided the first disks.
We probably all know what a laser is – what would a James Bond film be without one? – but did you know that the word, currently first identified in 1960, is an acronym of ‘light amplification by stimulated emission ofradiation’? You can see why they went with the acronym, can’t you? By the time James Bond had finished asking for one of them to be passed, all opportunities for cutting into the bank vault would be scuppered.
Perhaps the most surprising acronym on the list, given the widespread use of the term for parcels sent to anyone from soldiers at war to students at university, the ‘care’ in care package originally stood for the Cooperative forAmerican Remittances to Europe, which sent out aid in the aftermath of World War Two.
And one that isn’t. . .
Then there’s the backronym. Somebody retrospectively creates an appropriate acronym for an existing word, and it can be so convincing that people mistakenly believe the word was originally an acronym. A good example is ‘posh’. You might have heard that posh is an acronym for ‘port out,starboard home’, in reference to the more comfortable accommodation on a ship sailing from England to India – but the evidence to support this suggestion has yet to be discovered.
You might have anticipated that sim (often heard in sim card, and also spelledSIM or Sim) was an acronym, but perhaps you didn’t know quite what it was. The letters stand for subscriber identity module, or subscriber identificationmodule: in other words, a microprocessor in a mobile phone holding details of the user’s network registration etc. So now you know.
You’ve probably heard of gulag (also spelled Gulag and GULAG) – a term used both for the department of Soviet secret police responsible for labour camps from the 1930s until the 1950s, and for those camps themselves. What you might not realize, unless you’re a fluent Russian speaker, is thatgulag is an acronym of Glavnoe upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovȳkh lagereĭ – which translates as ‘Chief Administration for Corrective Labour Camps’.
Let’s turn to something more cheerful, shall we? The etymology of puffinwhen referring to the bird (auks of the genus Fratercula, if you will) is uncertain, although it certainly isn’t an acronym. Where the acronym comes into play is with the British puffin crossing – a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights which use sensors to detect whether or not pedestrians are waiting. The acronym in question is pedestrian user friendly intelligent (crossing) – respelled after the bird’s name for punning potential…
…and by analogy with the earlier pelican crossing, also British. This variety of pedestrian crossing has traffic lights operated by pedestrians, and is a respelling of the acronym pedestrian light controlled (crossing). Other crossings represent a veritable menagerie of animals – the zebra crossingbecause it is striped black and white and the Pegasus crossing because horse riders can cross there (with reference to the mythical winged horse). The suggestion that the toucan crossing (which a cyclist may use withoutdismounting) is a pun on ‘two can cross’, sadly, seems likely to be a laterrationalization.
We’ll finish with a borderline case. Alphabet isn’t strictly an acronym, but it is close to an initialism, where the word is pronounced as separate letters, rather than as one word – such as OED for Oxford English Dictionary. In this instance, the initialism comes via Hellenistic Greek ἀλϕάβητος, from the first two letters of the ancient Greek alphabet ἄλϕα (alpha) and βῆτα (beta). That is to say, the word alphabet is formed in much the same way that we might refer to the English alphabet as the ABC.