A backronym, or bacronym, is an acronym that is assigned to a word that existed prior to the invention of the backronym. Unlike a typical acronym, in which a new word is constructed from a phrase, the phrase corresponding to the backronym is selected to fit an already existing word. Backronyms may be invented with either serious or humorous intent, or they may be a type of false etymology or folk etymology. The word is a blend of back and acronym.
By contrast, a backronym is "an acronym deliberately formed from a phrase whose initial letters spell out a particular word or words, either to create a memorable name or as a fanciful explanation of a word's origin."
For example, the United States Department of Justice's Amber Alert program was named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in 1996; but officials later publicized the backronym "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response".
The earliest known citation of the word in print is as bacronym in the November 1983 edition of the Washington Post monthly neologism contest. The newspaper quoted winning reader Meredith G. Williams of Potomac, Maryland, defining it as the "same as an acronym, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters".
An example of a backronym as a mnemonic is the Apgar score, used to assess the health of newborn babies. The rating system was devised by and named after Virginia Apgar, but ten years after the initial publication, the backronym APGAR was coined in the US as a mnemonic learning aid: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration.
There has been a trend among American politicians to devise names for Political Action Committees and laws that form desired acronyms. For example, the official title of the USA PATRIOT Act, a 2001 Act of Congress, is "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001".
As false etymologies
Sometimes a backronym is reputed to have been used in the formation of the original word, and amounts to a false etymology or an urban legend. Acronyms were very rare in the English language prior to the 1930s, and most etymologies of common words or phrases that suggest origin from an acronym are false.
Examples include posh, an adjective describing stylish items or members of the upper class. A popular story derives the word as an acronym from "port out, starboard home", referring to nineteenth century first-class cabins on ocean liners, which were shaded from the sun on outbound voyages east (e.g. from Britain to India) and homeward heading voyages west. The word's actual etymology is unknown, but more likely related to Romani påš xåra ("half-penny") or to Urdu (borrowed from Persian) safed-pōśh ("white robes"), a derogatory term for wealthy people. Similarly, the distress signal SOS is often believed to be an abbreviation for "Save Our Ship" or "Save Our Souls" but was chosen because it has a simple and unmistakable Morse code representation – three dots, three dashes, three dots, sent without any pauses between characters.
More recent examples include the brand name Adidas, named after company founder Adolf "Adi" Dassler but falsely believed to be an acronym for "All Day I Dream About Sport"; Wiki, said to stand for "What I Know Is", but in fact derived from the Hawaiian phrase wiki-wiki meaning "fast"; or Yahoo!, sometimes claimed to mean "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle", but in fact chosen because Yahoo's founders liked the word's meaning of "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth" (taken from Jonathan Swift's book Gulliver's Travels).
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- "The Virginia Apgar Papers - Obstetric Anesthesia and a Scorecard for Newborns, 1949-1958". U.S. National Library of Medicine, NIH. Retrieved 2008-11-18.
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- "posh, adj. and n.". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.
- Rohrer, Finlo (13 June 2008). "Save our SOS". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
- All Day I Dream About Sport: The Story of the Adidas Brand, ISBN 1-904879-12-8
- "The wiki principle". Economist.com. 2006-04-20. Archived from the original on 7 October 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
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- "The History of Yahoo! - How It All Started..." Yahoo.com. 2001. Archived from the original on 29 November 2001. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
- The dictionary definition of backronym at Wiktionary