You probably already know that scuba’s an acronym, right? (It stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Well, obvs.) But there are lots of other words we use every day that you might not know are actually short for something (okay, maybe you only use them every day if you work for NASA or are an American police person, but let’s just gloss over that, m’kay?). Here are my top five.
‘Do you expect me to talk?’
‘No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!’
That’s my favourite laser-based scene from the movies. Anyway, that has nothing to do with this post. Laser’s short for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. This is bound to come up in a pub quiz at some point so I’ve tried to commit it to memory but so far I can only remember ‘light’ and ‘radation’. Half a point?
These aren’t all going to rhyme, honest. Even though it looks nothing like a gun, Taser stands for Thomas A Swift's Electric Rifle. This actually has a weirdly nice backstory (considering it’s a not-so-nice thing). Tom Swift is the lead character in a young adult novel called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle; or, Daring Adventures in Elephant Land (awesome title – although a bit of research reveals it’s now considered horrendously racist, so maybe don’t rush down to Waterstones) which was a favourite of Taser inventor Jack Cover.
Apparently he added in the ‘A’ – Tom Swift doesn’t have a middle name in the book – which is lucky as otherwise we’d all be trying to work out how to say TSER.
Speaking of working out how to say things, why, oh why, does no one know how to pronounce GIF? I favour a hard ‘g’ myself (like ‘git’) but apparently Steve Wilhite, the creator of the GIF image format, says it’s pronounced with a soft ‘g’, because it echoes the name of an American peanut butter brand, Jif (I don’t know why). Luckily, because lots of people on the internet have too much time on their hands, someone’s put together a whole website on why it should be a hard ‘g’. And here’s someone arguing the exact opposite.
Wars have been fought over less…
Sorry, I almost forgot to say what it stands for: Graphics Interchange Format. Which is much less interesting than the whole pronunciation thing.
It’s not because they’re smart and you can fit them in teeny-tiny spaces. It stands for Swatch Mercedes ART apparently. This is because the cars were developed by Swatch (yes, the watch people) and Daimler Benz. They started life as ‘Swatchmobiles’ but this was scrapped (pardon the pun) for a reason I can’t find.
I can’t think of anything amusing to say about this, so here’s a link to some funny pictures of smart cars instead.
The BASE bit’s short for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth, which apparently is the stuff you can jump off of (although I’m not sure how you can jump off a span or the earth). If you make a jump from each of the four categories you get a BASE number. Whatever that is, I’m never going to get one.
Just in case you’re not clear on what BASE jumping is, here’s a video of some mental people jumping off what I think is an electricity pylon. Warning – contains some NSFW language (well, I’d be swearing too if I was going to jump off an electricity pylon) and dirty fingernails.
A note on acronyms v initialisms (and backronyms)
Loads of us (me included up until a few years ago) use and abuse the word ‘acronym’. An acronym only applies to an abbreviation that you pronounce as a word. So the ones on this list are all acronyms. If you pronounce the individual letters of an abbreviation (like BBC or FBI), it’s an initialism, not an acronym.
There are also things called backronyms, which are when we make words that aren’t acronyms or initialisms into, well, acronyms or initialisms (that’s a horrible sentence, sorry). It’s basically retconning a word, usually for a laugh. ‘Bing’ (the Microsoft search engine) has been backronymed (not a word) as ‘Because It’s Not Google’.
Apparently SOS is a backronym. It doesn’t stand for ‘Save our souls’ at all – the letters were just chosen because they’re easy to transmit in Morse code. WTF, right?