Last week, we looked at acronyms, words formed from contracting longer phrases, like laser and radar. But imaginative amateur linguists have reversed the process and created “bacronyms” — taking words that aren’t acronyms and inventing fictitious phrases that could have been abbreviated to form these terms. So rather than an acronym emerging from a longer set of words being compressed, a bacronym expands a word (or an acronym) to stand for something it was never meant to.
The term “bacronym” was the brainchild of Meredith G. Williams, who came up with it in a Washington Post competition in 1983. But bacronyms were already in existence well before the word was invented, as I recall from my childhood, when airline names (in most cases unwieldy acronyms to begin with) were hilariously reverse-expanded. The British Overseas Airways Corporation, as British Airways was then known, flew as BOAC, a term derisively bacronymed as “Better On A Camel”. The American Delta Airlines was said to stand for “Doesn’t Ever Leave The Airport”. Belgium’s national airline Sabena (a name which was itself an acronym, derived from “Société Anonyme Belge d’Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne”) was given the bacronym “Such A Bad Experience, Never Again”. My personal favourite bacronym savaged the Italian carrier Alitalia: “Arrived Late In Tokyo And Luggage In Amsterdam”.
The aeroplane is not the only mode of transport to have been so favoured. The automobile manufacturer Ford would have been chagrined to find its founder’s name bacronymed to “Fix Or Repair Daily”. Ships aren’t exempt either: exhausted sailors say navy really means “Never Again Volunteer Yourself”. And if you’re on your feet wearing a particular brand of sneakers, Adidas, a contraction of the name of the company’s founder Adolf “Adi” Dassler, has been bacronymed to “All day, I dream about sports.”
Some words that are popularly assumed to have been acronyms actually aren’t — they are bacronyms. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been earnestly told that the word “posh”, connoting luxury and expense, is an acronym of “port out, starboard home.” On ships, port is the left side, starboard the right, so ships sailing from Britain to India had their cooler, north-facing cabins on the port side heading to India and starboard back; thus, the more affluent or important passengers took the “posh” cabins. Great story, but a myth.
Also a myth, alas, is the belief that the universal distress call, SOS, is an acronym for “Save our Souls” (or at sea, “Save Our Ship.”) In fact, SOS wasn’t an acronym at all. The signal was chosen soon after the invention of Morse Code because it is easy to issue in an emergency — three dots, three dashes, three dots. The bacronym’s a good one, though! More recent technology has also given us bacronyms: thus VHS tapes (the original acronym stood for “vertical helical scan”) were dismissed as “virtually hopeless signal” and Microsoft’s Bing, its big rival sneers, is no good “Because It’s Not Google”!
Sometimes a word you want to use is deliberately chosen because it lends itself to a bacronym. When the USA was attacked on 9/11, it quickly passed the “USA Patriot Act”, which used the evocative words “USA” and “patriot” but actually stood for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” Act.
My favourite set of bacronyms prick the pomposity of the exalted. Britain, a famously hierarchical society with titles, decorations and orders of precedence attached to almost everyone and advertised with a string of letters after their names. Civil servants, for instance, are often made CBE, which officially stands for “Commander of the Order of the British Empire”, but is flung back at them by their underlings muttering “Can’t Be Everywhere”. Even grander are Britain’s famed long-service awards, which, in increasing order of seniority, are CMG, “Companion of the order of St Michael and St George”, KCMG, “Knight Commander of the order of St Michael and St George”, and GCMG, “Knight Grand Cross of the order of St Michael and St George”. These have been made into wonderful bacronyms for decades now by irreverent British civil servants: CMG, they say, means “Call Me God”, KCMG is “Kindly Call Me God”. And GCMG? “God Calls me God”!
Shashi Tharoor’s World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat and wordsmith par excellence will dissect words and language
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