Monday, 29 March 2021

Our acronyms are backronyms

We humans love a good conspiracy theory, so the idea that some words are formed from acronyms or initialisms is seductive. For example, the idea that the word 'pom' - a pejorative term for the English, commonly used in Australia and New Zealand throughout the 20th Century - came from transportees being called "Prisoner Of Mother England", or "Prisoners of her Majesty". 

However, seeing as all those in power were actually from 'Mother England', or a subject of her Majesty, these initialisms seem a bit of a stretch. 

Michael Quinion, an Oxford English Dictionary reader, and sometime editor of the blog, World Wide Words, explored the origins of the term 'pom'. He found Australian author D H Lawrence described this in 1923, as "Pommy is supposed to be short for pomegranate. Pomegranate, pronounced invariably pommygranate, is a near enough rhyme to immigrant, in a naturally rhyming country. Furthermore, immigrants are known in their first months, before their blood ‘thins down’, by their round and ruddy cheeks". Michael also notes that we humans love creating acronyms where none existed before (Quinion, 1999). Backronyms, if we will. 

What is interesting is that there are so many types of what are now termed 'acronyms'. Bloom has a great list of what really are types of abbreviation:

  • "Clipping, e.g. ad for advertisement
  • "Titular contraction, as in Mr, Dr or St
  • "First letter initialism, e.g. BPH, TUR, NPO, RSVP
  • "Opening letter initialism, e.g. Ca, HeLa
  • "Syllabic initialism, e.g. modem (modulator-demodulator)
  • "Combination initialism, e.g. ad inf (ad infinitum), email, CaP", and
  • Pronounceable initialism or "Acronym, e.g. TURP, radar" (2000, p. 2)

While shortening has been around for a long, long while - think INRI for 'Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum', and SPQR for 'Senatus populusque Romanuis' - the term 'acronym' for a pronounceable initialism was surprisingly recently coined in WW2 (Cannon, 1989). Examples are ANZAC (An-Zack; Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), and radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging). What is more surprising is that the term initialism was first seen in print in 1844 (Clergymen of the Church of England, p. 48). So both initialisms and acronyms as a 'formal' constructs separate from abbreviations are relatively recent. 

Coming back to the idea of 'poms', in the 17th & 18th century, few people could read, so we had little need to shorten a long written phrase. If we use Occam's razor, it seems more likely that a pejorative term will have come from something much more simple than a backronym. Like the sunburnt faces of English imports newly docking in Aussie. 

Language is fascinating.


Sam

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