‘backronym’: meaning and early occurrences

A blend of the adjective back and of the noun acronym, the noun backronym, also bacronym, denotes an acronym deliberately formed from a phrase whose initial letters spell out a particular word or words:
– either to enhance memorability;
– or as a contrived explanation of an existing word’s origin, positing it as an acronym.
—Cf. in particular the British-English noun chav, often said to be an acronym from Council House And Violent (or Van).

The noun bac(k)ronym is first recorded in When You Can’t Decide, You Just Pick Them All, by Bob Levey, published in The Washington Post (Washington, D.C., USA) of Tuesday 8th November 1983:

Last month there was no trouble, er, problem. We inaugurated the R. Levey Neologism of the Month Award, and the hands-down best new word of October was Carol Cassell’s “troublem”—a cross between “trouble” and “problem.”
But let’s be honest. “Troublem” was the hands-down winner because it was the only entry. This month, we have a true horse race among ten worthy contenders. But rather than try to pick a winner (I have enough troublem doing that at the real race track), I’m going to declare a ten-way dead heat.
“A Daily Reader” in Fulton, Md., suggests “humendous.” I like it a lot better than the now-common “humongous” because humendous merges “huge,” with “stupendous.” Humongous merges nothing with nothing.
And isn’t this last one absolutely great? It’s “bacronym,” and it’s the brainchild of Meredith G. Williams of Potomac.
A bacronym, says Meredith, is the “same as an acronym, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters.” Some examples:
GEORGE—Georgetown Environmentalists Organized against Rats, Garbage and Emissions.
LIBRA, Inc.—Living In the Buff Recreation Associates (now that’s a cause that would turn some heads).
And for a mouthful and a half, SURFSIDE—The Small Unified Reactor Facility with Systems for Isotopes, Desalting and Electricity.
But Meredith’s last one was the showstopper. ’Twas a bacronym for ROBERT LEVEY.
A ROBERT LEVEY, he says, is a Reporter Of Brilliant Elegance, Renowned Talent and Limitless Energy, and a Vendor of Exceptional Yarns.
All I can say in return, Meredith, is that you’re a Man of Erudition, Richness, Education, Dimension, Intellect, Talent—and Hoots.

These are the earliest occurrences of the noun bac(k)ronym that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From Word fancier has fun with language, an article by Tom Blackburn about the U.S. linguist and author Richard Lederer (born 1938), published in The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida, USA) of Thursday 30th November 1989—Crazy English: The Ultimate Joy Ride Through Our Language (New York: Pocket Books, 1989) is a book by Richard Lederer:

Lederer takes his English seriously, as vice president of the Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature, or SPELL.
But not pretentiously: SPELL is an acronym. In Crazy English, he would call it a bacronym, though, since the word “spell” existed before the society, just as “zip” existed before the Post Office invented a “Zone Improvement Plan” to justify calling them ZIP Codes.

2-: From The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 13th March 1999:

Brisbane group, Auran, best known for its hit title Dark Reign, has just won a grant of more than $2 million from the Federal Government for its SAGE project. SAGE (backronym for Extreme Game Authoring System) is high-level software for games designers.

3-: From Explanations of the chad punctured with holes, one might say, by David Dale, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Tuesday 14th November 2000:

The chad, a tiny piece of cardboard upon which hangs the result of the US presidential election 1, has a contorted and mysterious history. It might be an ancient bit of punch-code jargon, a tribute to a long lost inventor, a nosy cartoon character, or a backwoods way of describing broken pottery.
The Florida electoral authorities are now anguishing over whether some of Vice-President Al Gore’s votes were miscounted because holes were not fully punched through the ballot cards, and bits were left dangling. We’ve been hearing about hanging chad, pregnant chad, swinging door chad and dimple chad.
In Saturday’s Herald, help was sought from readers in tracking down the origins of the term. […]
Glen Macdonnell suggested that chad was an acroynym [sic] for Corresponding Hole Automatic Data, David Sneddon that it was for Cut, Hanging And Dangling, and Leslie Pongrass for Card Hole Aggregate Debris. However, other readers thought these might be “backronyms”—invented after the word was already in use.

1 On Tuesday 7th November 2000, the U.S. presidential election resulted in a statistical tie between the Democratic candidate Albert Arnold Gore Jr. (born 1948) and the Republican candidate George Walker Bush (born 1946). The results in Florida were unclear by the end of election night and resulted in a recount and a Supreme Court case, which ended the dispute in favour of George W. Bush a month later.

4-: From The backronym boys 2, by Jan Freeman, published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Sunday 2nd September 2001:

Happy Labor Day—or not, perhaps. A few weeks ago, a struggling businessman asked a reporter, “Do you know what ‘job’ means? . . . Not many people know this, but it stands for something: ‘Just Over Broke.’”
The New York Times, which ran the story, didn’t correct the man, but he was mistaken twice over. In fact, the alleged job acronym is quite widely known; it’s also a folk etymology, or, better, a joke etymology—most users know it’s bogus.
Among the jargonistas of computer-land, this kind of coinage is known as a backronym, an acronym after the fact. BASIC, spam, and last fall’s notorious chad—which some imaginative folks claimed was short for Card Hole Aggregate Debris—are a few of the words embellished with fanciful long forms. Just Over Broke, however, is a relatively recent witticism—its first Lexis/Nexis citation comes in 1992, though it surely occurred to someone years earlier. Both job and broke (as slang for “out of money”) are much older, dating from the 17th century.
We might have called these inventions retronyms—a French computer dictionary, in fact, describes backronym as a “retro-acronyme,” a purported translation of a word that is not really an acronym. But in English, we’ve already claimed retronym for another use: It’s a coinage that distinguishes an old version of something from a newer form, like rotary telephone or black-and-white TV. (Thanks to artificial sweeteners, a food writer was recently driven to specify “real white sugar” in a recipe.)
Retronym, though it’s barely old enough to vote, is recognized by standard dictionaries; backronym is still a jargon word, but it’s not backing down. It’s even trying its wings as a verb (“Can you backronym that?”).
But will backronymy—the term or the practice—catch on? There’s a special problem with Just Over Broke for job: Since one is an adjective phrase and the other a noun, true acronymy is grammatically impossible. You can say “I have a job” but not “I have a Just Over Broke.”
As for backronym itself, the question is whether it can hook enough of us to wiggle its way into standard usage. After all, annoying as acronyms and abbreviations can be, they’re often useful shortcuts. How many of us want to invent a long way around for a word that’s already conveniently compact?

2 This title is a pun on the phrase backroom boys.

5-: From Internet Life, published in the Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas, USA) of Thursday 24th January 2002:


A word interpreted as an acronym that was not originally intended so. Example: The programming language BASIC is sometimes incorrectly described as an acronym for “beginners all-purpose symbolic instruction code.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.