7 False Acronyms

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?

Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.


As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."


The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

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