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backronym also bacronym

noun [countable]

a word which has been made into an acronym (= an abbreviation consisting of letters that form a word), even though it was not originally formed from one

'What does “SOS” stand for? Nothing. The letters “SOS” are an international distress signal, especially by ships and aircraft … Many believe “SOS” signifies “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls”. However, these phrases were a later development, most likely to help remember the correct letters — a bacronym.'

Nanaimo Daily News 23rd September 2008

Acronyms are one way in which new words are formed. For instance, remember the health scares in the recent past surrounding the SARS virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)? If you've picked up the tabloids, you'll have no doubt seen reference to the WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends). Or do you like to take advantage of the various BOGOF (Buy one get one free) offers in your local supermarket? These words have formed because the phonetic rhythm of the initial letters anchors them in our mind, so we attach meaning to these forms as words in their own right, sometimes not always being familiar with the underlying phrases.

in addition to the acronym, we now have the backronym, a phrase constructed from the initial letters of a previously existing word or abbreviation

So if words can be formed from acronyms, why not form acronyms from words? Thankfully, where language is concerned, we are completely free to unleash our creativity, so there is nothing to stop us doing just that. So in addition to the acronym, we now have the backronym, a phrase constructed from the initial letters of a previously existing word or abbreviation.

In the case of a backronym, a phrase is carefully chosen to fit the letters within the word. In this sense, a backronym resembles a mnemonic, a short phrase which aids the memory, as in Richard of York gained battle in vain for the colours of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). A backronym differs from many mnemonics however, in that the initial letters of the words within the phrase form a pronounceable word. Take the word wiki for example, which describes a user-edited web page. Though wiki is actually derived from the Hawaiian word for 'quick', it has been suggested that a useful backronym of it might be the phrase What I know is, since wikis typically represent the knowledge of individual web users.

An example of a backronym in established use is in connection with the expression Apgar score, a measurement used to assess the health of newborn children. The term is actually based on the name of its inventor, Dr Virginia Apgar. However a backronym: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration has become widely accepted in medical contexts as a learning aid for the five criteria which form the basis of the health assessment. If you fancy having a go at creating one or two backronyms yourself, this backronym generator, written by blogger O. Patrick Barnes, may provide some fun and inspiration.

Background – backronym

The word backronym is of a course a blend of back and acronym, and seems to have been around for twenty years or so, its first use dating back to the early eighties. The back in the word relates to the linguistics term back formation. Back formation is an irregular type of word formation where a shorter word is derived by deleting an 'imaginary' affix from a longer word already existing in the language. For example, the verb edit is derived from the noun editor, and not the other way round, as is more conventional (compare act/actor, sing/singer).

A related expression in this context is recursive acronym. This is an acronym which refers to itself, usually by including the acronym as the first word in the phrase to which it relates. An example of a recursive acronym in general use is VISA, which stands for VISA International Service Association.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 5th December 2008.

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