Word of the week

Word of the week: backronym

An acronym is a word made up of the initial letters of other words, like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). You probably knew that already, but I only became familiar with the word at university, when someone explained the derivation of the word Narg (which you can read about in this piece from 2016).

A backronym, on the other hand, is “an acronym deliberately created to suit a particular word or words, either to create a memorable name, or as a fanciful explanation of a word’s origin”, as explained on the Oxford Dictionaries Blog. A former manager of mine, who favoured Ford motor cars, used a backronym to describe the company and their vehicles: “First On Race Day”.

Backronym was featured last month on Channel 4’s “Countdown”, in Susie Dent’s “Origin of Words” slot, my favourite part of the show. “Countdown”, Ms Dent, and her Origin of Words feature, have had a few mentions on this Blog since this piece last April, including this Word of the Week about malaphors. She gave the word “tip”, in its meaning of a gratuity for wait staff, as an example of a backronym. One story has it that the tip boxes in 18th century London coffee houses had a note reading, “To Insure Promptness”, but there is no evidence for this. Similarly there is no evidence that “posh” derives from the phrase “Port Out, Starboard Home”, supposedly used to describe the cabins assigned to well-to-do (or “posh”) travellers on sea voyages from England to India. The theory here was that such cabins (port side on the voyage out, starboard side on the return journey) were away from direct sunlight, and therefore more desirable.

The first backronym I can remember was for the construction firm Wimpey. They were a major employer in the 1960s and 70s of people like my father, on building sites all over London and then further afield in places like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, to name two countries where he worked in the late 1970s. One of my classmates told me that it stood for “We Import More Paddies Each Year”, but we had a riposte, a backronym created from spelling it backwards: “You English Pigs Make Irish Work”. Before beginning to draft this piece those words had not crossed my mind for at least 20 years. You might find them mildly offensive, but they’re not as offensive as the backronym that a member of my family offered last month.

We were talking about people I was at school with, their older brother who drove a Pontiac, and the motor dealership here in West London that supplied it, along with other imported muscle cars. “Do you know what Pontiac stands for?” I was asked, by the family member who will remain anonymous. I didn’t, and won’t repeat what was quoted, other than to say that the “n” represented what I can only call “The N word”. It’s a word that might never pass my lips for the rest of my life, and it will certainly never appear on this Blog, even as part of a backronym.



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