Acronyms - A 20th century phenomenon


Senior Member
In a recent thread which is now closed one poster gave an etymology for a racial slur about which I was immediately suspicious. It seemed to be the result of the sort of folk etymology which is illustrated by the false story of posh having come from Port Out, Starboard Home.

The purpose of this thread is not to address the racial slur in question. It is a warning to be wary of etymologies for words occurring before the 20th century which are said to have originated as acronyms, and to give a source which discusses the matter. (The racial slur may have been coined in the 20th century and may be a backronym rather than an acronym. See the discussion of those terms below.)

I had previously read that acronyms did not occur before the 20th century, and in that century they did not really get going until either the New Deal in the US, or World War II. So I set out yesterday to find the work in which I had read that.

I did not find the same source, but I did find a work which discusses the matter, and in fact devotes an entire chapter to it: Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends by David Wilton, Oxford University Press, (C) 2004. The chapter's name is Posh, Phat Pommies and begins on page 79.

Wilton concentrates his discussion on acronyms, using a strict definition of that term in which he excludes both initialisms such as BBC and backronyms, an acronym based upon an existing word such as START (for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). On page 82 he says:

There is only one known pre-twentieth-century word with an acronymic origin and it was in vogue for only a short time in 1886. The word is colinderies or colinda, an acronym for the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in London in that year.
The author then goes on to mention the next three words known to have an acronymic origin, the trade names Nabisco (registered as a trademark in 1901) and Seroco (for Sears, Roebuck and Company, first used in print in 1902). The third is ANZAC (Australian-New Zealand Army Corps, 1915).
  • Hakro

    Senior Member
    Finnish - Finland
    Acronyms are a good system if used correctly and in accordance with other users.

    Unfortunately we have today a chaos of acronyms, at least in technical fields that I know. For example, in the automotive field there are (in AE terminology) a couple of three-letter acronyms that have half a dozen totally different meanings, and then there are many terms that have half a dozen different acronyms. For a translator it sometimes is an insupportable situation.

    This kind of usage seems to be spreading from US all around the world. I'm not so happy with the development.
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