Was there any snafu in your scuba diving trip? Does the captcha test really reduce spam? Is it OK to use a laser pointer in the presentation? Are you aware that six of these words are acronyms?
We speak in acronyms all the time without even realizing it. Acronyms are abbreviations that have become words in their own right. The word is probably borrowed from Greek akr- (beginning) + -onym, -onymon (name, word), because an acronym is a word formed from the first letter or letters of the words in a phrase. Initialisms are similar, but can be distinguished from acronyms. The word acronym typically applies when the resulting thing can be read as a word—for example, Radar began as an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging, along with the closely related Sonar (Sound Navigation Ranging)—whereas the word initialism only applies when the resulting thing is read as an abbreviation—for example, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) or DIY (Do It Yourself). Both have proliferated with the advent of texting—think of YOLO (You Only Live Once), FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or ICYMI (In Case You Missed It). All remind us how quickly the English language evolves and expands. Even OK began as an acronym (or initialism?) for “oll korrect,” a slang term first published in the Boston Morning Post in 1839 as a humorous alteration of “all correct” (history.com). While the plethora of business acronyms can drive me crazy (FTE, RFP, YTD—even KFC), knowing what an acronym stands for helps me to remember it.
I’m sure you are familiar with ASAP (as soon as possible) and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), but are you aware that Laser, Taser, Care package, and Zip code also began as acronyms? Lasers (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) were first built in 1960 at Hughes Research Laboratories (now—you guessed it—HRL Laboratories) in California. Producing a focused beam of light, lasers have many uses, from laser cutting to barcode scanners. CARE packages started out during World War II, standing for Cooperative for American Remittance to Europe. The earliest CARE packages were U.S. Army surplus “10-in-1” food parcels intended to provide one meal for 10 soldiers during the planned invasion of Japan. The idea was so popular that at the end of the war, the nonprofit CARE organization was founded and began a service that let Americans send the packages to friends and families in Europe, where millions were in danger of starvation. Ten dollars bought a CARE Package to be delivered overseas within four months. As the program later evolved beyond Europe, the acronym evolved to Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere. Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2021, CARE continues to fight global hunger and poverty, serving 111 countries this year alone (care.org).
Taser has a more surprising history. A “conducting energy weapon” generally used to incapacitate people, the taser was invented in 1993 by NASA researcher Jack Cover as a less-lethal force option for police to use to subdue belligerent or fleeing suspects. Because it delivers an electric shock, Cover named it after the children’s science fiction adventure book Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle by Victor Appleton, featuring his childhood hero. ZIP codes, an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan, were introduced in 1963, but did not become mandatory until 1967. This 5-digit number specifies an individual destination post office or mail delivery area. The name was chosen to suggest that the mail travels more efficiently and quickly (zipping along) when senders use the code in the postal address. The United States Post Office used a cartoon character, which it called Mr. ZIP, to promote the use of the ZIP Code. In 1983 it was extended by four digits, called ZIP+4, to identify a geographic segment, such as a city block or group of apartments, within the five-digit delivery area. While most people don’t bother to learn those extra four digits, according to Wikipedia modern mail processing technology has rendered them obsolete.
Of course, many acronyms are related to computers and computer networks. Are you old enough to remember the LAN (Local Area Network) and CD-ROM (Compact Disc – Read Only Memory)? Today we are more familiar with digital photo extensions such as GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), PNG (Portable Network Graphics), and JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group). The SIM card that you remove from your old phone and insert into your new one stands for Subscriber Identity Module. It authenticates the subscriber and ensures they are accurately billed for used airtime. But what about those annoying Captcha tests that websites use to prove you aren’t a robot? Silly me imagined that “captcha” was somehow short for “capture you” (“you” being the robot), but no: Captcha is actually a longer-than-usual (and creative) acronym for Completely Automatic Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. The Turing test is named after Alan Turing (1912-1954), whose tragic story is told in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, and who is often considered the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. I wonder if Chat GPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) can pass these tests (If not, I’m sure they are working on it)? And a new to me computer-related acronym is LDOT, for Long-Distance Object Tracker, an app that uses artificial intelligence to verbally identify objects shown in a phone’s camera.
Scuba, or Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, describes the gear needed for underwater exploration—a particularly unappealing activity to claustrophobes like me!
Snafu stands for the tongue in cheek truism, Situation Normal—All F***ed/Fouled Up, which originated as military slang during World War II. It acknowledges that although life is often chaotic, we still love it and accept its minor inconveniences. Similarly AWOL (Absent Without Leave) began as a military no-no, but was soon adopted into the general language to mean missing without explanation. Spam, a canned luncheon meat made from pork shoulder—first developed in 1937 by Hormel Foods as “spiced ham”—was quickly adopted as a pre-cooked, easy-to-transport ration during World War II. It later became popular around the world, where it is known as Special Processed American Meat—and has even become a main ingredient in Hawaiian cuisine. Sometimes considered unpalatable in the U.S., it also came to refer to annoying, unsolicited email messages. Navy SEALS (Sea Air and Land) are a well-known arm of the military. The closely related civilian SWAT team stands for Special Weapons And Tactics. All of this shows how acronyms are often deliberately devised to create catchy words.
An oft-heard acronym these days is NIMBY, for Not In My Back Yard, defined by Oxford Languages as “a person who objects to the siting of something perceived as unpleasant or hazardous in the area where they live, especially while raising no such objections to similar developments elsewhere.” This soon gave rise to YIMBY, for Yes In My Back Yard, a pro-affordable-housing movement. Speaking of neighborhoods, I actually learned a new acronym this week on Jeopardy. The question was, “what Brooklyn neighborhood is referred to with an acronym?” The answer: DUMBO, for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Who knew? (answer: Brooklynites).