Hacking Around With Backronyms

By Rob Kyff

February 12, 2020 3 min read

During my first year of teaching, I supervised about 50 boys in a recreational jogging program. It was so low-key and undemanding that the kids called it "Hack," as in "hacking off." Trying to be cool, I scrawled the word "Hack" atop the attendance roster on my clipboard.

When the athletic director spotted my list one day, he asked about its title. Sputtering, I told him that "hack" was an acronym.

"For what?" he asked.

I had to think fast. "Uh ... Health and Care of Kneecaps?" He furrowed his brow and walked away, shaking his head.

Though I didn't realize it at the time, I had invented a "backronym." A what?

We're all familiar with acronyms, of course, e.g., "scuba" (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus). But a "backronym" is a phrase concocted to suggest that an already existing, nonacronymic word is an acronym.

Two classic backronyms are "Apgar" (a rating scale for the health of newborn babies) and "Amber Alert."

The first originated with Virginia Apgar, the physician who devised the scale in 1952. About 10 years later, someone devised a backronym based on the five criteria of the test: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration.

"Amber Alert" arose from the tragic abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Texas in 1996. Within a few years, Amber alerts evolved into a nationally coordinated system, spawning the backronym: America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

The term "backronym" was coined (as "bacronym") by Meredith Williams in 1983, when she submitted it to a neologism contest in The Washington Post. This was a big improvement on the previous word for such terms: "prefabricated acronyms." Thank you, Meredith!

Some backronyms are delightfully subversive: for "Navy" (Never Again Volunteer Yourself), "Ford" (Fix or Repair Daily), "Fiat" (Fix It Again, Tony) and "Delta" (Doesn't Ever Leave the Airport).

Some are concocted as false etymologies. The words "cop," "news" and "golf," for instance, did NOT originate as acronyms for "Constable on Patrol," "North, East, West, South" and "Gentlemen Only; Ladies Forbidden," respectively.

And some backronyms are so tortuously contrived that they're ridiculous, e.g., the "U.S.A. Patriot" Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism); the "Sacrifice" Act (Service Act for Care and Relief Initiatives for Forces Injured in Combat Engagements).

Somehow my "Health and Care of Kneecaps" doesn't sound so silly after all.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: skeeze at Pixabay

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