Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is this on your radar?

In a March 21st Word Nerd posting here, inspired by the exotic setting of Rosie Thomas’s Iris and Ruby, I indulged my interest in the origins of the word posh. If the theory that posh derives from the tony phrase from the days of the British Raj “Port Out Starboard Home,” which meant a made-in-the-shade voyage out to India for the wealthy, then posh qualifies as an acronym. Acronyms are abbreviation terms that made up of the first letter of each word in a descriptive phrase, such as NATO, from North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Today, we live in an age dominated by the influence of science and technology, so it is no surprise that acronyms are all around us. Consider the term laser, which comes from Lightwave Amplification Stimulated (by) Emission (of) Radiation. You really wouldn’t want to have to say that every time you referred to a high-speed printer. So familiar are acronyms these days that we tend to forget—or perhaps never even knew—that the letters themselves stand for something else.

A lot of acronyms we use today come straight from the era Rosie Thomas writes about in Iris and Ruby: World War II. Radar is just such an example. It comes from: Radio Detecting And Ranging (device). Another that arose during the 1940s is similarly technical: Sonar, from Sound Navigating And Ranging (device). But not all abbreviations from the Renaissance Age of Acronyms are science-based. Two of the most colorful—and handy in everyday life (especially if you have kids)—are old US Army terms coined by the Greatest Generation: Snafu and Fubar. The sanitized versions go like this—Situation Normal All Fouled Up and Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition. A phonetic acronym from the Second World War is Jeep. It comes from General Purpose (vehicle).

For word nerds like me out there, here’s the etymology of acronym, itself: as many grammar terms do (like phonetic or apostrophe or syntax) it is Greek in origin: akros (on top) and onyma (name).


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