Skeptic at Work: “Backronyms”

I studied psychology in university.  One of the first things I learned about the study of brain and behavior was that it is often seen by other scientists as “soft science”.  Instead of rightfully being considered a relatively new and difficult application of the scientific method in order to better understand the brain and behavior of living things, it is usually referred to as “not physics” and its validity constantly challenged.  I also learned that a giant hurdle for this faculty is so-called “folk psychology” which limits its interpretation of behavior to observation free from any controlled variables and relies purely on anecdotal evidence.  This is where popular maxims such as “birds of a feather flock together” originate (also it’s incongruous, yet equally lauded “opposites attract”).  The problems with “folk” widsom are self-evident but I never suspected other scholarly pursuits faced similar issues.

Etymologists.  I’m sorry.  I was wrong.

Etymology (the study of words and their origins), like all scholarly pursuits, must constantly battle “folk wisdom”.    The allure of folk wisdom is that it easily preys on people’s willingness to accept as true a new piece of seemingly sensible information on which they have no expertise if it is interesting.  Much to etymologist’s chagrin, word origins are very frequently assigned meanings by folk-etymologists that are completely unfounded but are thought of as intriguing or controversial by the lay-person and therefore passed on like a virus.  Very often, words are falsely explained as having originated as acronyms for phrases.

Today I heard that “golf” originally stood for “Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden”.  The story is that a sign to that effect hung over one of the earliest golf clubs and it was eventually shortened to it’s acronym and then finally as the word itself.  A similar origin story can be attributed to a long list of words found here and here.  These false etymologies are referred to as backronyms and once you find out about how many of them there are, the next time someone tells you that word X came from acronym Y you will, like me, be very apt to instantly dismiss the claim.

The truth is word origins are usually pretty hard to nail down and/or ultimately boring.  In the case of golf it is, as is the case with just about every other word in the English language (or any language), believed to be a bastardization of a word with a similar meaning to today’s usage from some foreign or ancient language or dialect.  With all the interaction between various cultures and countries throughout the history of humanity, it’s not shocking at all to assume words and phrases were passed around and exchanged.  It’s also not that incredible that words simply evolved from previous versions of the language.  Word origins can almost always be traced back to other languages and those words to other languages and so on.

Of course, there’s the problem.  It’s not incredible and therfore not interesting or worth mentioning in a conversation.  Saying word X came from a similar Latin or Old English word is not likely to raise any eyebrows or illicit shock from your audience.  Saying its origins are rooted in sexist, racist, offensive attitudes will generate that covetted response.

That said, there are plenty of words that do originate from acronyms:  Scuba, laser, radar, gestapo (and also Nazi), amphetamine (also endorphin), JPEG, etc.  Just like other scholarly pursuits, there’s plenty of interesting true things out there without having to make it up.

For more information see:  Online Etymology Dictionary

Thanks for reading!!!!!!!!  And thanks again as always to Kimbo for letting me borrow some occasional blog space.

P.S.  Don’t say “ATM machine” or “UPC code” either.  C’mon.
P.P.S. Oh and stop pluralizing acronyms (and numbers) but putting ‘s at then end.  It’s completely wrong.  C’MON!

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