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.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER