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Backronym

The purpose of a backronym is usually to confer a symbolic meaning upon a word that previously had no such meaning. More specifically, a word is a backronym when people begin with a word and try to figure out an acronym to fit it, as opposed to the acronym emerging from a natural series of words. A good example of this would be the "PATRIOT ACT": lawmakers likely began with this phrase, and then worked backwards to make it the name of a law.

What is a backronym?

You probably came to this page because you just saw the world "backronym" at some other website and thought "now that's a funny word; what could it possibly mean?" But think for a second, doesn't it sound like another word you've heard before?

"Backronym" is a portmanteau of the words "back" and "acronym". As such, a backronym is a pre-existing word that's used within an unrelated context as an acronym for a phrase or lengthy name. The first known use of the word dates to November 1983, when it was the winning entry in a neologism contest held by the Washington Post. 

Some examples

Whenever you see a word that's familiar, yet used out of context and spelled in all capital letters, it's likely a backronym. The following sentences make use of backronyms:

  • "I joined SPAM in hopes of getting my compositions heard by some major label recording artists."
  • "Thanks to all the BISON, the quality of life has improved in our region."

Now what could these people be talking about? Spam—as in the product of Hormel Food Corp.—has nothing to do with the music industry. And how could a region's bison population make things any better—or worse, for that matter—for humans?

Thing is, they're not talking about Spam (the food) or bison (the creature); they're each making uses of backronyms. In the first example, SPAM is a backronym that stands for Society for the Publication of American Music. In the second, BISON means "biodiversity is serving our nation." 

SPAM is essentially an acronym in this context, but an acronym made from a widely recognized word that typically elicits jokes (the food) or derision (unwanted email). Therefore, it's hard to imagine that a music-publication society—no matter how serious—could have possibly chosen SPAM as a self-referential shorthand without being tongue in cheek. 

The BISON backronym is different, since it's an acronym for a sentence rather than a name, but those are the two ways in which a word can qualify as a backronym. 

Origins of backronyms

Backronyms can be a fun way to tie the meaning of an organization or phrase to a familiar word. For instance, the founders of YAHOO, Jerry Yang and David Filo, selected the word "yahoo"—coined in Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire Gulliver's Travels as meaning a vice-addled person—in self-deprecating jest as an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchically Organized Oracle."

In recent times, certain long-existing titles and phrases have gotten the backronym treatment, and new words have formed in the process. Popular examples include POTUS and SCOTUS, which have become convenient, roll-of-the-tongue shorthands, respectively, for President of the United States and Supreme Court of the United States.

Before the term's coinage, the backronym principle was applied in August 1977 by English punk rockers the Sex Pistols, who—banned by city councils from performing anywhere in their home country—embarked on an undercover tour where they were billed as the Spots, which stood for "Sex Pistols on Tour Secretly."

Words that don't qualify as backronyms: 

  • CPAC – An acronym that—while easily pronounceable as "see-pac"—can't really qualify as a legitimate word due to the presence of back-to-back consonants: c and p.
  • MGTOW – Neither a pre-existing word nor pronounceable as one, due to the presence of three consecutive consonants. While it's sometimes pronounced "migtow" for use in sentences, the addition of characters would be cheating, even if it could otherwise qualify.

Essentially, all backronyms are acronyms, but not all acronyms are backronyms. Click here to read a list of words that many people think are acronyms, but are really backronyms.

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