25 Words That Are Actually Acronyms

iStock.com/Jman78
iStock.com/Jman78

There’s an old language myth that claims posh stands for “port out, starboard home.” According to the tale, the first posh people were wealthy British ship passengers who could afford to book two cabins on their trips to India—one on the port side of the ship, the other on the starboard—to ensure that they had the most comfortable trips, away from the sun, when they headed out and when they returned home.

It’s a neat story, but a fictitious one. In fact, posh is more likely derived from nothing more than a 19th-century slang word for either a showily overdressed dandy or for basic coinage and cash. But the popular “port out starboard home” story makes posh a prime example of a backronym, a word mistakenly presumed to be an acronym. Likewise, golf—supposedly standing for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden”—is another. Tips are paid, according to some, “to insure promptness.” And then there are the old stories about "fornication under consent of the king” and fertilizer being labeled “ship high in transit,” and even that most 21st century of words, bae, is sometimes said to stand for “before anyone else.”

But if those are all backronyms, then what about the genuine acronyms? Well, here are the stories and meanings behind 25 words, names, and titles that you might not have realized actually stand for something.

1. AGA

Not the aga as in “Aga Khan,” this Aga is a type of cast-iron cooking range invented in Sweden in the early 1920s, which became popular in large country houses and middle class homes in the mid-20th century—so much so, in fact, that Aga saga is still a British slang expression for a genre of literature characterized by exaggerated stories set in rural middle class England. The name Aga stands for Aktiebolaget Gasaccumulator, or “The Gas Accumulator Company” in Swedish.

2. BASE JUMPING

A form of parachuting in which jumpers leap from fixed objects, base jumping started back in the 1980s. It takes its name from the four types of fixtures that you can jump from: building, antenna, span, or Earth.

3. CAPTCHA

The next time you’re asked to enter a practically illegible string of characters or numbers into a website to prove that you’re human, it’s worth remembering that Captcha stands for “completely automated public Turing Test to tell computers and humans apart.” (Although unsurprisingly the name was also deliberately coined to sound like capture.) 

4. CARE PACKAGE

The first care packages—or rather, CARE packages—were put together in the aftermath of the Second World War with the aim of providing food relief to war-torn Europe. They were the work of what was then a newly formed humanitarian agency known as the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (later changed to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), founded in 1945.

5. COMECON

Not to be confused with ComicCon, Comecon—or the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance—was an economic organization founded in the 1940s that linked all of the Eastern Bloc nations of Eastern Europe. Led throughout its existence by the Soviet Union, Comecon was disbanded in 1991.

6. DERV

Or in other words, diesel oil for “diesel-engined road vehicles.”

7. E-FIT

Although it’s often misused as simply a synonym for photofit, technically the name E-fit refers only to the computer program used to produce composite pictures of police suspects based on people's descriptions. It stands for “electronic facial identification technique.”

8. GESTAPO

The Gestapo came into being in Nazi Germany in 1933. Its name is an acronym of Geheime Staatspolizei—literally meaning “secret state police.”

9. GIF

American computer scientist Steve Wilhite created the “graphics interchange format,” or gif, in 1987. (And the inventor thinks you should be pronouncing it “jiff,” not “giff.”)

10. GIGAFLOP

As a measure of the processing speed of computers, the “flop” of words like gigaflop and megaflop stands for “floating-point operations per second.” Originally it was spelled gigaflops (which some people still prefer), but the -s was dropped to avoid thinking it was plural.

11. Gulag

The former Soviet labor camp's name was an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey, literally the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps.

12. HUMVEE

Like deejay and emcee, Humvee is one of a rare group of words formed by a vague attempt to pronounce a string of letters—in this case the acronym HMMWV, standing for “high-mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle.”

13. PAKISTAN

The name Pakistan is said to be derived from the Urdu and Persian word pak, meaning “pure.” But when the name was first coined in 1933, the independence activist Choudhry Rahmat Ali also suggested that it worked as an acronym of the five northern regions of British India: Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and, giving it its final few letters, Baluchistan.

14. POG

If you grew up in the '90s, you probably played Pogs. But according to the OED, the name was an acronym for passion fruit, orange, guava, and was named after a drink in Maui that provided the lids for the first games.

15. and 16. RADAR and SONAR

Radar technology was developed in the lead-up to the Second World War. Its name was coined in the 1940s as an acronym of “radio detection and ranging,” and has since been used as a template for the names of other similar technologies, including sonar (“sound navigation and ranging”) and lidar (literally “light radar”).

17. SCUBA

When you’re scuba diving, you’re using “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.”

18. SIM CARD

And the SIM card in your phone is really your “subscriber identification module” card.

19. SMART CAR

Now a division of the Daimler organization, the Smart Automobile company began in Germany in the late 1980s. Originally known as the “Swatchmobile” (because the car was developed by the same company that makes Swatch watches), the name “Smart car” was chosen in the mid-1990s as an acronym of “Swatch Mercedes Art.”

20. SNAFU

A snafu is a mistake, or a general state of confusion or disarray. It was coined in the early 1940s, apparently by American troops during the Second World War, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “an expression conveying the common soldier’s laconic acceptance of the disorder of war and the ineptitude of his superiors”—namely, “situation normal, all f****d up.”

21. SOWETO

The Soweto suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, is an acronym of “south-western townships.”

22., 23., and 24. TASER, LASER, and MASER

Taser stands for “Thomas Swift’s electric rifle,” but the notorious electroshock device was actually invented by an engineer named Jack Cover in the late 1960s. Cover decided to name his invention in honor of his childhood hero, Tom Swift, the fictitious star of a series of children’s sci-fi adventure novels. But chances are he also modeled it on laser (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”), which in turn took its name from the even earlier maser technology (“microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”).

25. ZIP CODE

Zip codes were introduced to the American postal service in 1963 as a means of speeding up the delivery of the mail by dividing the country into identifiable numerical zones. There is some disagreement as to whether the zip of zip code is an acronym or a backronym, but either way it’s said to stand for “zone improvement plan.”

This article originally appeared in 2015.

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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