Acronyms: It feels like they’ve always been with us. Perhaps that’s why we’re constantly inventing retroactive etymologies for older terms like “fuck” and “posh.” (No, “fuck” does not stand for “fornication under consent of king,” nor does “posh” derive from “port out, starboard home.” Sorry!)
It’s only in the past hundred years or so that acronyms began to proliferate in the English language. The word itself only dates back to the 1940s. But now that they’re here, they’re here to stay -- and they’ve become ubiquitous.
Acronyms are words formed with the initial letters of a phrase, but unlike an initialism (such as the FBI) an acronym is pronounced phonetically. This makes them particularly insidious; it’s relatively easy for an acronym to slip into our vocabulary as a word in its own right, leaving behind its baggage. We may not even remember what words like “scuba” and “snafu” stand for -- or even that they stand for anything.
Here are 15 words you may be shocked to realize are actually acronyms -- and what they actually mean:
SNAFU: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up
The industrialization of the military in the 1940s was a major driver of new acronyms into the English vocabulary -- largely because of new technologies with complicated names, but also thanks to terms like SNAFU, which referred to the general chaos and horror of the battlefields.
AWOL: Absent Without Official Leave
Like the omnipresent ASAP (As Soon As Possible), you may well know this is an acronym as well as what it stands for. But its usage has so far outstripped the original military meaning represented by its letters that it can be hard to remember what we’re really saying when we say someone’s gone “AWOL.”
LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
Laser has eclipsed its identity as an acronym at this point; it’s now treated as a word rather than an acronym. Its origin as an acronym is still fairly common knowledge, but who among us can remember what it actually represents? So now it’s time to commit it to memory: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. See? Easy.
RADAR: Radio Detection And Ranging
Radar: another technology named by initials. Like laser, we no longer treat radar like an acronym. Unlike laser, radar stands for a combination of words even us non-scientists can probably remember: Radio Detection And Ranging. You got this.
FUBAR: Fucked Up Beyond All Repair/Recognition
Like snafu, FUBAR dates back to World War II and its proliferation of military slang. It provided a handy way to refer to the disastrous state of affairs in the war zone. (Sense a theme there?)
SCUBA: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
Snorkel, scuba -- the world of underwater swimming proliferates with odd words. But while snorkel is just a word (derived from German), SCUBA actually stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Which is exactly what it is!
ZIP code: Zone Improvement Plan
In the U.K. and Australia, they’re known as postcodes. In Canada, postal codes. So why does the U.S. have a bizarre term like ZIP code for the string of numbers that allows mail services to direct our correspondence more efficiently? The answer, of course, is that it’s an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan, referring to the U.S. Postal Service’s scheme for improving their mail delivery codes. The zippiness of the term is just a bonus. (When the new codes first launched, USPS even advertised the codes with a goofy cartoon named Mr. Zip.)
Smart car: Swatch Mercedes Art
“Smart” makes for such an on-point descriptor of these small, cleverly designed city cars that we were gobsmacked to realize this was no adjective, but an acronym for Swatch Mercedes Art. These cars were developed by Swatch and brought to the market in partnership with Daimler Benz; the acronymic brand was a compromise between the two companies.
SWAT: Special Weapons And Tactics
This seems pretty obvious, but in case you need an ice breaker the next time a SWAT team breaks into your house by accident during a botched drug raid... now you know!
IMAX: Image Maximum
This is why IMAX movie tickets cost approximately $28 more than regular tickets. It’s the Image MAXimum. And you have to pay for that much image.
TASER: Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle
Extra points to the inventor of the taser, Jack Cover, for hiding a clever nod to a pulp novel in his groundbreaking weapon’s name. Rather than a dull acronym for the function of the tool, TASER stands for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. This refers to the fictional character Tom Swift, who starred in a series of books focusing on his wild sci-fi inventions -- including an electric rifle, the fictional precursor to the taser. Sometimes science fiction really does become a reality.
POG: Passion fruit, Orange, Guava
If you’re a nineties kid, you probably remember spending a few glorious months obsessed with the pog fad -- acquiring perfectly weighted slammers, collecting boxes full of pogs covered in Pokemon characters and photos of athletes, and playing endless rounds with your friends. (Or maybe that’s just us.) But “pog” wasn’t just an arbitrary odd word; originally, it stood for “passion fruit, orange, guava” and was the name of a juice drink from which the game of pogs derived its name.
CARE package: Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe
What’s a care package? Obviously, just a package you send to show your care to someone, whether it’s your daughter off at college or a soldier serving abroad. WRONG. Care packages were originally CARE packages; they were sent via the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe to Americans’ loved ones in Europe as the continent struggled to recover from the ravages of WWII. The organization eventually changed its name to Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, and they began to focus on broader development efforts rather than individual aid packages -- but the term “care package” hasn’t left our vocabulary.
BAE: Before Anyone Else
Bae sounds really similar to the more time-tested endearment “babe,” but reportedly it’s also an acronym. Or is it?!
NIMBY: Not In My BackYard
If you’ve ever read an op-ed about a neighborhood protesting the location of a new garbage dump, or energy plant, you’ve probably seen the term nimby or nimbyism being tossed around. NIMBY stands for Not In My BackYard, a generally disdainful term for more well-off citizens who use their relative clout to insist that unpleasant but necessary amenities be located at a more comfortable distance from their homes.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that CARE packages originated in the aftermath of World War I. They originated in the aftermath of World War II. The post has been updated to correct this.