A backronym is an acronym formed from an already existing word by expanding its letters into the words of a phrase. Backronyms may be invented with either serious or humorous intent, or they may be a type of false etymology or folk etymology. The word is a portmanteau of back and acronym.[1]

Humorous example of a backronym used by NASA to name a treadmill on the International Space Station, in reference to American comedian Stephen Colbert

A normal acronym is a word derived from the initial letters of the words of a phrase,[2] such as radar from "radio detection and ranging".[3] By contrast, a backronym is "an acronym deliberately formed from a phrase whose initial letters spell out a particular word or words, either to create a memorable name or as a fanciful explanation of a word's origin."[1] Many fictional espionage organizations are backronyms, such as SPECTRE (special executive for counterintelligence, terrorism, revenge and extortion) from the James Bond franchise.

For example, the Amber Alert missing-child program was named after Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in 1996.[4] Officials later publicized the backronym "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response".[5]



An example of a backronym as a mnemonic is the Apgar score, used to assess the health of newborn babies. The rating system was devised by and named after Virginia Apgar. Ten years after the initial publication, the backronym APGAR was coined in the US as a mnemonic learning aid: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration.[6] Another example is the American Contract Bridge League's tools to address cheating in online bridge games. EDGAR was originally named for the late Edgar Kaplan, whose many contributions to the game included groundbreaking efforts to reduce illegal partnership communication. The new EDGAR tools expected to debut in early 2024 have been launched with the backronym Everyone Deserves a Game Above Reproach.[7]

Many United States Congress bills have backronyms as their names; examples include the American CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) of 2020,[8][9] the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act) of 2001, and the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act).[10] In the 113th Congress (2013) there were over 240 bills with such names.[11]

As false etymologies


Sometimes a backronym is reputed to have been used in the formation of the original word, and amounts to a false etymology or an urban legend. Acronyms were rare in the English language before the 1930s, and most etymologies of common words or phrases that suggest origin from an acronym are false.[12]

Examples include posh, an adjective describing stylish items or members of the upper class. A popular story derives the word as an acronym from "port out, starboard home", referring to 19th-century first-class cabins on ocean liners, which were shaded from the sun on outbound voyages east (e.g. from Britain to India) and homeward voyages west.[13] The word's actual etymology is unknown, but more likely related to Romani påš xåra ("half-penny") or to Urdu (borrowed from Persian) safed-pōśh ("white robes"), a term for wealthy people.[14]

Another example is the word chav, which is a derogatory term for a working-class youth. This word is probably of Romani origin[15] but commonly believed to be a backronym of "Council-Housed and Violent".[16]

Similarly, the distress signal SOS is often believed to be an abbreviation for "Save Our Ship" or "Save Our Souls" but was chosen because it has a simple and unmistakable Morse code representation – three dots, three dashes, and three dots, sent without any pauses between characters.[17]

More recent examples include the brand name Adidas, named after company founder Adolf "Adi" Dassler but falsely believed to be an acronym for "All Day I Dream About Sport";[18][pages needed] The word Wiki, said to stand for "What I Know Is",[19] but in fact derived from the Hawaiian phrase wiki-wiki meaning "fast";[20] or Yahoo!, sometimes claimed to mean "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle", but in fact chosen because Yahoo's founders liked the word's meaning of "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth" (taken from Jonathan Swift's book Gulliver's Travels).[21] The distress call "Pan-Pan" is commonly stated to mean "Possible Assistance Needed", whereas it is in fact derived from the French word panne, meaning breakdown.[22]

See also



  1. ^ a b "Backronym – Definition of backronym in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries – English. Archived from the original on March 1, 2019.
  2. ^ "Acronym". Archived from the original on 28 October 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  3. ^ NASA. "RADAR means: Radio Detection and Ranging". Nasa Explores. Archived from the original on 2004-01-28.
  4. ^ " AMBER Alert history" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-10-09.
  5. ^ "AMBER Alert – America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response". 2007-11-01. Archived from the original on 27 July 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-08.
  6. ^ "The Virginia Apgar Papers - Obstetric Anesthesia and a Scorecard for Newborns, 1949-1958". U.S. National Library of Medicine, NIH. Archived from the original on 2009-01-13. Retrieved 2008-11-18.
  7. ^ Official, ACBL (8 November 2023). "ACBL Battles Online Cheating with EDGAR". Bridge Winners. Archived from the original on November 15, 2023. Retrieved November 15, 2023.
  8. ^ "The CARES Act Works for All Americans". U.S. Department of the Treasury. Archived from the original on 2020-10-01. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
  9. ^ McConnell, Mitch (2020-06-03). "S.3548 - 116th Congress (2019-2020): CARES Act". Archived from the original on 2020-10-02. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
  10. ^ "The art of the 'backronym'". Roll Call. July 28, 2020. Archived from the original on January 24, 2022. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  11. ^ Bump, Philip (August 2, 2013). "All the Silly Legislative Acronyms Congress Came Up with This Year". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on January 24, 2022. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  12. ^ Sheidlower, Jesse (2009). The F-Word. New York: Oxford University Press US. ISBN 978-0-19-539311-8.
  13. ^ Quinion, Michael (2005). Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-101223-4.; published in the US as Quinion, Michael (2006). Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-085153-8.
  14. ^ "posh, adj. and n.". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.
  15. ^ "chav". Wiktionary. The Wikimedia Foundation. 2023.
  16. ^ Bennett, Joe (30 April 2012). "Everything you ever wanted to know about the word 'chav'". Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast, University of Birmingham. Archived from the original on 2023-09-29. Retrieved 2023-10-13.
  17. ^ Rohrer, Finlo (13 June 2008). "Save our SOS". BBC News Magazine. Archived from the original on 2012-12-02. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  18. ^ Brunner, Conrad (2004). All Day I Dream About Sport: The Story of the Adidas Brand. Great Brand Stories. London: Cyan. ISBN 1-904879-12-8.
  19. ^ "The wiki principle". The Economist. 2006-04-20. Archived from the original on 7 October 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  20. ^ "wiki". Archived from the original on 6 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-15.
  21. ^ "The History of Yahoo! - How It All Started..." 2001. Archived from the original on 29 November 2001. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
  22. ^ Green, Eli (18 January 2023). "Qantas flight QF144 lands safely at Sydney Airport after midair mayday call". Archived from the original on 18 January 2023. Retrieved 18 January 2023.