What is a Backronym?

atkins bookshelf wordsIn speech and in writing, you probably use a backronym every day and don’t know it. If you have ever used a mnemonic, then you can easily understand what a backronym is. A backronym (also spelled bacronym) is essentially a reverse acronym, that is to say, words derived from the initial letters are chosen to fit the letters of an already existing word or acronym. Thus, a backronym is a reasonable but false etymology, developed after the fact. 

Take for example, the word scuba that is a classic example of an acronym. It was originally developed from the words Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. On the other hand, a backronym works the other way around. Perhaps the most common example of a backronym is the word “news” that is simply the plural of “new” to describe new or recent events happening somewhere else. The word first appeared in the 1300s. However, over time (and long before the appearance of the mischievous internet), an explanation arose that news was an acronym for the four points of the compass: North East West South. That etymology, of course, is incorrect.

Another very common backronym is SOS. Most people believe it stands for “Save Our Souls” or “Save Our Ship” however the letters were simply chosen because it is easily sent and recognized in Morse code (there dots, three dashes, three dots); the letters do not really mean anything.

Another well-known backronym is the Amber Alert. The term, originated in 1996, was named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas in that year. However, the backronym that was developed was America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

As mentioned earlier, one of the most common uses of backronyms is as an easy and effective pedagogical tool. In grade school we all learned “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” representing the musical notes in the scale: EGBDF. We also learned HOMES as an easy way to learn the five Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior); and “My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us None Pies” to indicate the other of the planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto — back when it was a planet). Knowing the first eight U.S. presidents is often a challenge, but if you can recall “Will A Jolly Man Make A Jolly Visitor?” then listing the presidents is as easy as apple pie: George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren.”

Speaking of pie, mnemonics are also helpful in math. Remembering the first seven decimal digits of pi is tough, but if you can remember “May I have a large container of coffee?” where each word represents a number (based on the number of letters in that word), you will know that pi equals 3.1415927.

Read related post: Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
What is the Longest Word in English Language?
What is a Collocation?
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels
What is an Abecedarian Insult?
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Rare Anatomy Words
What Rhymes with Orange?

For further reading: There are Tittles in This Title by Mitchell Symons (2014)


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