Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
By this point in your life, you probably know what an acronym is. Examples include NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and GIF (graphics interchange format). Note that an acronym is pronounced the way the beginning letters of each word “spell out” a new word.
An initialism, on the other hand, is an abbreviation containing the first letter of each word. When we pronounce initialisms, we simply say the letters (e.g., BBC, CIA, NCAA).
We find acronyms and initialisms all over the place, but I want to look at a subset of acronyms known as “backronyms” (or “bacronyms”). Backronyms are acronyms that have been reverse-engineered to conveniently spell a certain word. I’m going to show my hand early here and say that backronyms are the dad jokes of acronyms — they’re only clever to the person who came up with them. Everyone else simply rolls their eyes.
For instance, have you ever heard of the computer-programming language called BASIC? It stands for “Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.” That’s a stretch. James Bond creator Ian Fleming created the fictional crime syndicate called SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). In comics, Marvel’s SHIELD has stood for a few things during its existence, but, as of this writing, it stands for “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” I’ll admit — I don’t mind a good backronym in fiction, but in reality, they make me groan.
While backronyms are less common than acronyms, they tend to flourish in one place: Washington, D.C. Congressional leaders love cringeworthy backronyms. Most Americans benefited from 2020’s CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. And who can possibly forget 2001’s USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act?
I don’t doubt that members of Congress intend for their bills to help the American people, but they don’t have to literally spell it out. Other sessions of Congress have introduced the AMMO (Ammunition Management for More Obtainability) Act, the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, and even the Fair BEER (Brewers Excise and Economic Relief) Act. We get it, guys. I wonder how much time in meetings is devoted to reverse-engineering titles to spell stuff?
Perhaps we can rally our legislators behind a way to halt backronyms in proposed laws. We could call it the STOP IT ACT Act, which, of course, stands for Stopping the Obscenely Preposterous, Idiotic, Trivial Acronym-Creating Titles Act. Kinda catchy, don’t you think?
Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of “Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life.” Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.