On this day in 1983, retired Navy commander Meredith G. Williams (1924-2012) won a “create a new word” contest run by the Washington Post. Williams’ winning neologism was “backronym” which he defined as the “same as an acronym, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters.”
An example of a backronym is the Apgar score, a rating scale used to evaluate the health of newborn babies. The test was named for its creator, Virginia Apgar. Then, years later it became the backronym APGAR, a mnemonic device to help its users remember the test’s key variables: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration (APGAR) (1).
So instead of beginning with the letters of already-existing words and phrases and making them into a word, as in the acronym RADAR (“Radio Detection and Ranging”), the creator of a backronym begins with a word and then creates a phrase to match the word’s letters. For example, the backronym AMBER from the AMBER alert system was named for Amber Hagerman, who was abducted in Texas in 1996. The official translation for AMBER was invented to fit the name: “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.”
Another example is the USA PATRIOT Act which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. The complete translation of the act is Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.
Often backronyms are generated for humorous purposes, such as the Microsoft search engine Bing which some called the backronym “Because It’s Not Google,” or the automobile company Ford, which some claimed stood for “Fix Or Repair Daily.”
In 2010 NASA, an acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, created a backronym for the treadmill it uses on the International Space Station. In honor of comedian Stephen Colbert, the T-2 treadmill became the COLBERT: Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (2).
Today’s Challenge: Bring Home the Backronyms
What backronym would you create for a proper noun — the name of a company, a geographic place name, or the last name of a person? Just as Meredith G. Williams participated in a neologism contest, hold your own backronym contest. Use existing names of people, places, or companies to create backronyms that are funny or serious. (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)
1- Dickson, Paul. Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014: 26.
2-NASA. Colbert Ready for Serious Exercise. 5 May 2009. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/behindscenes/colberttreadmill.html.