A backronym, or bacronym, is a constructed phrase that purports to be the source of a word that is an acronym. Backronyms may be invented with either serious or humorous intent, or they may be a type of false etymology or folk etymology.
By contrast, a backronym is "an acronym deliberately formed from a phrase whose initial letters spell out a particular word or words, either to create a memorable name or as a fanciful explanation of a word's origin."
For example, the United States Department of Justice assigns to its Amber Alert program the meaning "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response," but the term originally referred to Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996.
An example of a backronym as a mnemonic is the Apgar score, used to assess the health of newborn babies. The rating system was devised by and named after Virginia Apgar, but ten years after the initial publication, the backronym APGAR was coined in the US as a mnemonic learning aid: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration.
There has been a trend among American politicians to devise names for Political Action Committees and laws that form desired acronyms. For example, the official title of the USA PATRIOT Act, a 2001 Act of Congress, is "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001".
Backronyms are also created as jokes or as slogans, often expressing consumer loyalties or frustration. Some backronyms name the subject to make obvious its purpose or characteristics.
Many companies or products have spawned multiple humorous backronyms, with positive or negative connotations.
Backronyms have also been coined by military personnel during wartime.
As false etymologies
Sometimes a backronym is reputed to have been used in the formation of the original word, and amounts to a false etymology or an urban legend. Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has written in his book The F-Word that acronyms were very rare in the English language prior to the 1930s, and most etymologies of common words or phrases that suggest origin from an acronym are false.
Examples include posh, an adjective describing stylish items or members of the upper class. A popular story derives the word as an acronym from "port out, starboard home", referring to nineteenth century first-class cabins on ocean liners, which were shaded from the sun on outbound voyages east (e.g. from Britain to India) and homeward heading voyages west. The word's actual etymology is unknown, but more likely related to Romani påš xåra ("half-penny") or to Urdu (borrowed from Persian) safed-pōśh (one who wears "white robes"), a derogatory term for wealthy people.
Other examples include the brand name Adidas, named after company founder Adolf "Adi" Dassler but falsely believed to be an acronym for "All Day I Dream About Sports"; Wiki, said to stand for "What I Know Is", but in fact derived from the Hawaiian phrase wiki-wiki meaning "fast"; or Yahoo!, sometimes claimed to mean "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle", but in fact chosen because Yahoo's founders liked the word's meaning of "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth".
The distress signal SOS is often believed to be an abbreviation for "Save Our Ship" or "Save Our Souls". In fact, it was chosen because it has a simple and unmistakable Morse code representation – three dots, three dashes, three dots, all sent without any pauses between characters.
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- Sheidlower, Jesse (2009). The F-Word. New York: Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-539311-2.
- Quinion, Michael (2005). Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-101223-4.; published in the US as Quinion, Michael (2006). Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-085153-8.
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- Rohrer, Finlo (13 June 2008). "Save our SOS". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
- The dictionary definition of backronym at Wiktionary