A few years ago, when a telecommunications-industry alliance proposed a solution to the scourge known as robocalls, it dubbed its system Secure Telephone Identity Revisited, or STIR. STIR was a bit clunky, so alliance members developed an improvement. What to call the new technology? The group dialed 007 for an answer and got – cue the James Bond theme song – SHAKEN, from the fictional spy's frequently stated preference for "a dry vodka martini – shaken, not stirred."
"We tortured the English language until we came up with an acronym," alliance member Jim McEachern admitted to the Los Angeles Times's David Lazarus in September 2017. Thus, writes Lazarus, "we have Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens, which if you squint real hard kind-of-sort-of collapses into SHAKEN."
Strictly speaking, SHAKEN isn't an acronym. Yes, it's "a word made from the initial letters or parts of other words" and pronounced as a single word rather than initial by initial. But because it's reverse-engineered from an existing word, it's more accurately described as a backronym – defined in an Oxford Dictionaries blog post as "an acronym deliberately created to suit a particular word or words, either to create a memorable name, or as a fanciful explanation of a word's origin." According to Oxford Dictionaries, bacronym first appeared in print in 1983, as a winning entry in a Washington Post neologism contest submitted by Meredith G. Williams of Potomac, Maryland. Williams defined it as "same as an acronym, except the words were chosen to fit the letters"; the bacronym spelling eventually gave way to the more transparent backronym and all but replaced the older, less-catchy reverse acronym.
At the time of the Post contest, backronyms were mostly a linguistic novelty. Acronyms in general were rare before the 20th century, and became truly popular only during World War II, which gave us radar, snafu, and other lasting additions to the lexicon that were promptly embraced and imitated. "We really do love acronyms, and especially acronymic explanations for words," writes lexicographer Kory Stamper in Word by Word: The Secret Lives of Dictionaries. We want posh to mean "port out, starboard home" (it doesn't), golf to be derived from "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" (it isn't), and news to expand to "north east west south" (nope).
A craving for linguistic rationality – not to mention a fondness for wordplay – explains how acronyms begat backronyms. They took off slowly at first. In the 1960s, SPECTRE – which stands for Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion – was familiar to American readers of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels; Fleming introduced the fictional spy organization in 1961, in Thunderball. BASIC, an early computer-programming language designed in 1964 for non-technical users, was backronymized as Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.
One of the most influential backronyms in U.S. history is SWAT, which was first used by the Philadelphia Police Department in 1964 and adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1967. The initials originally stood for Special Weapons Attack Team, but were modified to the slightly-less-ominous Special Weapons and Tactics. The blunt force of SWAT – whose dictionary meanings include "strike" and "punch" – inspired a television series, S.W.A.T., which aired on ABC in 1975 and 1976 and which was turned into a 2003 film and a 2017 television "reboot."
Law-enforcement organizations also backronymized AMBER Alert. Named for a 9-year-old Texas girl, Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in 1996, the system is officially (and clunkily) America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. A few years later, U.S. police departments could militarize their operations with a menacing vehicle called the B.E.A.R. (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response). The B.E.A.R.'s maker, Lenco, introduced a spin-off, the BEARCAT, in August 2001; the CAT initials stand for Counter-Attack Trucks.
But backronyms' happiest home is in the legislature – national or state. As Ben Zimmer noted in a 2012 Visual Thesaurus column, the legislative-backronym trend got rolling almost 30 years ago with the Health Omnibus Programs Extension (HOPE) Act of 1988 and the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act of 1990. "Legislators started tinkering more and more with reverse-engineering acronyms to spell out something relevant, with the hopes of 'branding' bills and making them more memorable," Ben wrote. "The granddaddy of belabored backronyms," according to Ben, is USA PATRIOT, whose rah-rah title expands into "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001." (It's a recursive backronym: it recapitulates one of the words it incorporates.) During the same Congressional session, the DREAM Act – Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors – failed to pass; it has been reintroduced repeatedly with the same result, but has nevertheless lent its name to a generation of "DREAMers": young people who were brought illegally to the United States by their parents or guardians.
As rousing as the PATRIOT and DREAM names are, they have met their match in a spate of recent legislation and bureaucratic invention, much of which has appeared since the 2016 election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. These backronyms evince levels of creativity and linguistic calisthenics that approach the heroic, or even the Orwellian.
A few examples from the Trump administration and supporters:
RAISE. An example of the backronym-as-masking-device, the RAISE Act – "Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment" – was introduced in August 2017 by two Southern Republican senators. The name sounds uplifting, but in fact the act would cut legal immigration to the U.S. in half. President Trump announced it by spelling it out – "R-A-I-S-E," possibly so his audience wouldn't assume, reasonably enough, that it was raze, to demolish or annihilate.
VOICE. The Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office was established within the Department of Homeland Security by executive order in February 2017; it's meant to act as a liaison between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE – another chilling backronym) and known victims of crimes committed by "removable aliens." In announcing VOICE, President Trump asserted that victims of immigrant crime have been "silenced by special interests," which I suppose is why they need a VOICE.
HONEST. The "Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment" – another recursive backronym – was introduced by Texas Republican Lamar Smith and passed by the House of Representatives in March 2017. The name is disingenuous, writes Ed Yong in the Atlantic: the act would sever the Environmental Protection Agency "from much of the scientific evidence that it relies upon," such as confidential health records.
And from opponents of the administration’s policies and actions:
MAR-A-LAGO. The name of president's private Florida golf club, whose Spanish name means "ocean to lake," was backronymized into the "Making Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness" act in March 2017.
COVFEFE. Just after midnight on May 31, 2017, the president sent an enigmatic tweet: "Despite the constant negative press covfefe." The tweet was later deleted, but not before "covfefe" caught on as a subject of mystery and mirth. Two weeks later, Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley, a Democrat, introduced the COVFEFE Act – Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement –which would amend the Presidential Records Act to include social media among materials that are documented and preserved. "While the bill's name is silly," noted NPR, "it addresses a legitimate issue."
NO TRUMP. Introduced by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, the No Taxpayer Revenue Used to Monetize the Presidency Act, would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for "expenses at hotels owned or operated by a president or his or her relatives" – a direct dig at Trump, who owns many hotels around the world. "No trump" is also a term in the card game bridge.
For a while, the legislative backronyms were multiplying so rapidly that they inspired parodies. Late-night TV host Stephen Colbert, for example, responded to the RAISE Act with a counter-proposal: the RACIST Act, which stands for Reforming American Citizenship Is Super Tough.
Think you'd like to try a few backronyms of your own? There's a website for that. Acronymify will take any words you enter and turn them into a compact abbreviation. A caveat: Most of the results are pretty LAME, as in Lackluster Asinine Muddled Examples.