14 words that are actually acronyms

Shashi Tharoor/Dubai
Filed on September 16, 2021

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

We use acronyms all the time — “OK” being the most common. Studying in Delhi University, I became acutely familiar with the local tendency to compress place names into acronyms — thus Connaught Place was “CP”, Kirori Mal College simply “KM” — but working in government taught me the disease is far worse there. Everyone was reduced to an acronym. So the External Affairs Minister was EAM, his deputies the Ministers of State were MoS, and all the bureaucrats beneath them seemed to have no names, only letters to identify them, as FS, AS, JS and so on. The last, Joint Secretaries, really ran the place, and their acronyms were compounded by their areas of competence — JSUN meant Joint Secretary United Nations, JSIO was Joint Secretary Indian Ocean. A young aide named Jacob, after meeting a series of such grandees, decided to introduce himself as “J-A-C-O-B”, which sounded authentic enough to send flunkies scurrying off to look up who was this new eminence with the title JSOB!

But acronyms which are obviously abbreviations of names or titles (like these above, or organisations like NATO or OPEC, or familiar terms like AM and PM) are not of much interest for a column on words. True, there are acronyms that have become indispensable in the language: in America, if you mail someone a letter, you need a ZIP code, a term that’s an acronym of “zone improvement plan”. (In India, you need one too — it’s called a PIN, for “postal identification number”, not to be confused with the PIN code you need at the bank’s ATM machines, which stands for “personal identification number”.) These are acronyms one uses all the time in daily life, along with FAQ, “Frequently Asked Questions”, BTW, “By The Way” and MYOB, “Mind Your Own Business”.

But they’re still obviously contractions of longer terms. What’s more fun are those acronyms we don’t even realise are acronyms — words created from the initial letters of words in a term or phrase that have acquired currency of their own. These acronyms are pronounced like regular words and you really have to dig into their origins to realise they are actually acronyms.

Those of you who have gone scuba-diving are probably aware that the word “scuba” is an acronym for ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’, though I dare say most others are not. I hadn’t realised, either, that “radar” is an acronym: the term was coined in World War II by the United States Navy, as an acronym for “Radio Detection And Ranging.” Similarly, “sonar”, which is based on the principle of reflection of high-frequency Ultrasonic Sound waves, is an acronym for “Sound Navigation and Ranging”.

Have you had, or contemplated, laser surgery? It’s effective in making precision incisions and often used when operating on the eyes — and it’s an acronym too, for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” When one reads of US law-enforcement subduing would-be trouble-makers with a “taser”, one would be justified in thinking that, like laser, it’s an acronym too. But there the resemblance ends: the acronym actually comes from “Thomas A Swift Electric Rifle”, after the inventor, Jack Cover, decided in 1974 to name it after his favourite children’s book character, Tom Swift.

Other acronyms that have passed into common use in the English language as words in their own right include Yuppie, the “Young Upwardly-mobile Professional”, NIMBY, “Not In My Back Yard”, and DINKIE, “Dual Income, No Kids”. There are less familiar variants: YAPPIE, “Young Affluent Parent”, for instance, SINK, “Single, Independent, No Kids” and OINK, “One Income, No Kids”. They’re accompanied these days by some decidedly jokey ones: SITCOM, “Single Income, Two Kids, Outrageous Mortgage”, or SCUM, “Self-Centred Urban Male”, or best of all, SINBAD, an acronym for “Single Income, No Boyfriend, Absolutely Desperate”.

Any SINBAD amongst you? It’s the weekend, or as Khaleej Times prefers it, the wknd. (That’s NOT an acronym.) Well, if you’re invited to attend a weekend party in America, you may be advised to BYOB, (“Bring Your Own Bottle”), though in Australia that same acronym stands for “Bring Your Own Beer”. I am not sure whether it’s students or office-goers who popularised TGIF, “Thank God It’s Friday”. AFAIK, “As Far As I Know”, it’s the latter, but IMHO, “In My Humble Opinion”, it doesn’t matter...