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What's a Backronym?

It's like an acronym, except the words are chosen to fit the letters rather than the other way around. The term was coined in 1983, part of a monthly neologism contest held by the Washington Post. (I'm not sure if we can call a word that's been around for thirty years a "neo"-logism anymore -- what's the statute of limitations on that?) A quick and probably needless refresher: acronyms are words created using letters from an already-existing phrase. For instance, "Radio Detection and Ranging" was the name of a technology which became popularly shortened into the acronym RADAR. Backronyms work the other way around. One creepy example -- you're all familiar with AMBER alerts, the child abduction bulletins that go out across cities when kids have been snatched? (In LA they flash across freeway billboards at least once a month.) Officially, AMBER stands for "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response," but that's actually a backronym invented to fit the name "Amber," after Amber Hagerman, a Texas girl whose 1996 abduction and murder led to the program's formation.

Alcoholics Anonymous uses a few backronyms, as well. They function as ironic mnemonic devices, almost; they backronymed word "slip" to mean "Sobriety Losing its Priority." (Great band name: ironic Mnemonic.) Many times, backronyms help create a false etymology for a word -- something I covered in last week's post on a word that many people falsely believe is an acronym for Ship High in Transit. Another one of these backronymic folk etymologies? For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I hate to quash that one, but its supposed medieval origins as an acronym are total bunko; acronyms were rarely used prior to the twentieth century.

Another folk etymology -- one I hadn't heard of -- is POSH, meaning fancy rich person, or the wife of a famous soccer player. Its supposed origin was the phrase "Port Out, Starboard Home," referring to the most expensive first-class cabins on trans-Atlantic ships, which would've been on the side of the ship shaded from direct sun, assuming you set sail from Europe (as all the poshest people do). Interesting, but etymologically false. We're not sure where the word "posh" comes from, though it may be derived from the Urdu safed-p??h, meaning "one who wears white robes." (I guess white robes were the old-school Urdu equivalent of $600 Prada sneakers today.)

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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