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7 False Acronyms

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Sure, everyone knows that SCUBA stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. And right, most of us know that AWOL stands for Absent Without Leave. But what about all those supposed acronyms, like Golf and Posh, that aren't really acronyms at all. Here are seven false ones you need to know"¦ at least to be able to impress friends at parties.

1. Posh

Supposed Meaning: Port out starboard home

As the old legend goes, back when travel between India and Britain was done by ship via the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, those in the first class cabins, or the "posh" passengers, usually sat "port out, starboard home" to be shaded from the sun. These tickets, which were stamped POSH, were prized among wealthy English travelers and the name became synonymous with fashion and luxury. However, the company has repeatedly denied this practice and the origin of posh is uncertain. But thanks to popular culture, like the 1968 musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with its "port out starboard home" lyrics in the song "Posh," the false acronym will probably never completely die.

2. Golf

Supposed Meaning: Gentleman only, ladies forbidden

golfMany people think that golf means "Gentleman only, ladies forbidden." And maybe because it was a sport dominated by certain types of men for so long, the myth stuck. But there's no truth to this one. As for the real origin of the word golf, one theory says it's derived from the Dutch word kolf, which means a stick or club, as in the kind Tiger Woods uses to hit a ball 300 yards onto the green. And the Scotts have a similar-sounding word, goul, which means, "to strike or cut off."

While we don't know the origin of the word, we do know that the first documented mention of the word was in Edinburgh in 1457, when King James II banned "˜ye golf', in an attempt to encourage archery practice. Word.

3. Adidas

Supposed Meaning: All Day I Dream About Sports and/or Sex

AdidasLogoThere are two popular false acronyms behind Adidas, the German-based sports apparel company. The first, and most commonly used is "All Day I Dream About Sports." Although it would seem to make sense, the popular phrase was coined years after the company was founded. The second was popularized in a 1997 Korn song titled "A.D.I.D.A.S." and is said to mean "All Day I Dream About Sex." As our readers point out in the comments below, this backronym has been around since the early 80s, at least. Of course, the word Adidas was never an acronym and is actually a portmanteau of the company's founder's name, Adolph "Adi" Dassler. When you blend Adi with the first three letters of his last name, you get Adidas.

4. KISS (the rock group)

Supposed Meaning: Knights in Satan's Service

gene-simmons-photoAlthough they may look like "Knights in Satan's Service", the make-up clad members of KISS are not the fire-breathing devil worshipers as this false acronym may suggest. According to Gene Simmons, the rumor began after he half-jokingly told an interviewer that he sometimes wondered what human flesh tasted like. Almost immediately after, the band became rock music's foremost Satanists. In some ways, the band both embraced and perpetuated the rumor by refusing to answer whether or not they worshipped the devil. Years later when Simmons was asked why he chose the name for the band, he simply replied, "We just liked it."

Fun Fact: Although he's been known to spit blood on stage, Gene Simmons studied theology at Sullivan Community College in New York.


Supposed Meaning: Respond to Sender Via Post

We've all received wedding invitations where the host has asked us to R.S.V.P. by a certain date, and in American culture it's rude not to "respond to sender via post." Who knows what the etiquette is in France, where the phrase originates. What's certain is that the actual French translation of the phrase is merely "please respond," or, in French, repondez s'il vous plait.

6. Cop

Supposed Meaning: Constable on Patrol

However, cop is neither an acronym for "constable on patrol" nor a slang term to describe the copper buttons on the uniforms of 18th century New York City police officers. The word cop was initially used in the 1840s as a verb meaning "to arrest." Slowly, the word transformed from 'to arrest into police custody' to describe the person doing the arresting. Soon after, police officers started being called "coppers."

7. Bing

Supposed Meaning: But It's Not Google

Picture 2When I first heard about Microsoft's new search engine, Bing, I thought maybe it had something to do with the Bada Bing! from the Sopranos. So I started poking around for the origin of the word. What I first discovered was a false acronym. Yes, some in the tech world are saying that Bing stands for "But It's Not Google." However, the folks over at the world's largest software company say that Bing is meant to invoke "the sound of found", as in "Bingo! I got it!" This is not the first time Bill Gates and company attempted to release a search engine to compete with Google. Previous efforts with MSN Search (bong) and Live Search (bang) both proved unsuccessful. I dunno, what do you all think of Bing?

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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]


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