10 Words That Started Life as Acronyms
An acronym takes the initial letters of a phrase and turns them into a word in their own right.
Many of us use acronyms, especially at work. Some of these acronyms are widely understood and some are specialised and only have meaning for those within a certain field.
For example in my field of First Aid, we teach DR(S)ABC to remember the primary survey protocol, SAMPLE for secondary survey and RICE to recall how to treat a sprain — Rest, Ice, Comfortable support and Elevate in case you were wondering.
Here’s a look at 10 of the more commonly used ones and some of the history behind them.
1. CAPTCHA — Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart
Phew! No wonder they wanted an acronym for this one.
We’re all familiar with CAPTCHA’s, those annoying tests needed to access or sign up to certain sites to prove you’re not a robot. These vary from words or number sequences to, more recently, image grids where you click on the squares that contain features such as cars or road signs.
As the internet developed, problems appeared when unscrupulous hackers spammed internet companies in order to promote URL’s.
In 1997, scientist Andrei Broder came up with a solution, a way to distinguish a real human from spambots. He developed an algorithm that generated a random text image that would need inputting before the person could get any further in the process.
In 2000, researchers at Carnegie Melon perfected the algorithm and named it the CAPTCHA in honour of Alan Turing, the man who invented the test to determine if computers could think like humans.
2. GESTAPO — Geheime Staatspolizei
The Nazi’s — another acronym - created their own Secret State Police, the Gestapo, in 1933.
They were answerable to no-one and were responsible for the elimination of opposition to the Nazi’s within Germany. It was a relatively small police force and relied mainly on informers to denounce people within their own communities.
3. GIF — Graphics interchange format
Love them or hate them, GIF’s are here to stay. They were created in 1987 by American computer scientist Steve Wilhite.
According to its inventor, it should be pronounced ‘jiff’ not ‘giff’.
4. GULAG — Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerey.
Gulags were a system of forced labour camps created in Russia in 1919 and used to brutal effect by Joseph Stalin to subdue the population. The words translate as the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps.
Some 18 million people are thought to have been incarcerated between the 1920’s and 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death.
The full horrors of the Gulags weren’t widely known until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 because the state archives were sealed.
5. NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard
Nimbyism often refers to the unwelcome attempts to site projects within a community.
Your town might need a new rubbish tip in the area, for example. Everyone at the local council meeting agrees but nobody wants it in their neighbourhood.
A youth centre is urgently needed to tackle the lack of facilities for latch key kids after school — but nobody wants those pesky kids hanging around after hours.
The term seems to have been coined in the 1980’s and is often used disparagingly when better-off residents insist that that ole dump would be better sited in the downtown area.
6. RADAR/ SONAR — Radio Detection and Ranging/ Sound Navigation and Ranging
Two navigation and detection systems used to find objects that are far away or not in sight. They were developed and perfected in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Radar uses electromagnetic waves to measure objects and sonar transmits acoustic waves. The waves return echoes from their target objects that can determine factors such as size, speed and distance.
7. SCUBA — Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
Pretty self-explanatory and if you’ve ever been lucky enough to go diving you probably already knew this one.
Finding ways to breathe underwater has a long history. The modern equipment of two air tanks and a mouthpiece was invented by two Frenchman, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, in 1942 and originally called the Aqualung.
8. SIM CARD
That fiddly little thing that you have inside your phone? It’s your subscriber identification module card.
9. SMART CAR — Swatch Mercedes Art
You know those weird cars that are so small they can park frontways against the pavement? Well, turns out there was more to the brand name than simply coining the right adjective for your product.
Designed by the well-known maker of watches, Swatch, in collaboration with Daimler Benz, the makers of Mercedes-Benz, this car was originally called the Swatchmobile. Daimler wanted something catchier so the companies compromised on a mash-up of their names.
I think Swatchmobile sounds pretty cool myself…
10. TASER — Thomas A Swift Electric Rifle
Jack Cover wanted to create a non-lethal device that could be used in situations like an airplane hijack. In the 1970's, after witnessing a hiker survive a collision with an electric fence, he invented a device that would deliver a paralysing electric shock.
Although taser sounds like a cool sci-fi name, it is an acronym of Cover’s favourite Tom Swift novel in which the character invented an electric rifle for white American Ivory hunters in Africa.
The racist overtones of the novel and concerns about the overuse of the taser by law enforcement agencies in African-American communities have led to debates about the wisdom of the choice of the acronym.
And a bonus one, just for fun.
Okay, you spotted it. I’m cheating a little here because I couldn’t possibly leave this one off the list. It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary which qualifies it, right?
If you call yourself a Dr Who fan and you don’t know this one…in the words of Ma Weasley — where have you been?
Time and Relative Dimension in Space — the Doctor’s time machine is a chameleon that can take on any form to fit in the environment it lands in. In the first ever episode of the long-running BBC series, the time machine malfunctioned and was stuck in the shape that it was in — the distinctive blue police box.
I recall the Doctor trying to fix it a few times but with mixed results and now the little blue box has become an icon in its own right.
Did I miss out a favourite acronym of yours? Let me know in the comments below.
How the British Royal Navy contributed to the English language