backronym (words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Initially named for Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered, AMBER Alert is a backronym for "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.". (Alex Wong/Gewtty Images)


A backronym is a reverse acronym: an expression that has been formed from the letters of an existing word or name. Alternate spelling: bacronym. Also known as an apronym or reverse acronymy.

Examples include SAD ("Seasonal Affective Disorder"), MADD ("Mothers Against Drunk Driving"), ZIP code ("Zone Improvement Plan"), and USA PATRIOT Act ("Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism").

The word backronym is a blend of "backward" and "acronym." According to Paul Dickson in Family Words (1998), the term was created by "Meredith G. Williams of Potomac, Maryland, to cover the likes of GEORGE (Georgetown Environmentalists Organization against Rats, Garbage, and Emissions) and NOISE (Neighbors Opposed to Irritating Sound Emissions)."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "SOS is an example of a backronym, with people claiming it stands for 'save our ship' or 'save our souls'--when, in fact, it doesn't stand for anything."
    (Mitchell Symons, Where Do Nudists Keep Their Hankies? HarperCollins, 2007)
  • Antonyms and Backronyms
    "This particular kind of etymological myth--the after-the-fact association of a word with a phrase--has become so common that it has acquired a whimsical name: backronym. The difference is timing: which came first, the phrase or the word? Scuba, for example, is a true acronym, evolved from 'self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.' Golf, on the other hand--contrary to widely circulated myth--does not stand for 'Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden." That's a backronym. Other backronyms wrongly believed to be actual etymologies include 'Constable on Patrol' and 'For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.'"
    (James E. Clapp, Elizabeth G. Thornburg, Marc Galanter, and Fred R. Shapiro, Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions. Yale University Press, 2011)
    "Some people, like me, inherit a genetic oddity that causes them to sneeze when confronted by bright light. I'm afraid this syndrome has been given the overly cute acronym of ACHOO (autosomol dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst)."
    (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses. Vintage Books, 1990)
    "What do you do when you're NASA and comedian Stephen Colbert wins your contest to name the new wing for the International Space Station? You name an orbital exercise machine after him.
    "The Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT, is expected to keep astronauts in shape.
    "With the help of a legion of fans, Colbert got the most votes in the space agency's online poll soliciting names for Node 3, which will be called Tranquility after the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 landed on the moon."
    ("NASA Names Cosmic Treadmill After Colbert." CNN Entertainment, April 15, 2009)
    "Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle have a society called Sherlock Holmes Enthusiastic Readers League of Criminal Knowledge, or SHERLOCK, a creative, if strained, backronym. In 1982, admirers of comedian Jackie Gleason organized the Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners, or RALPH, which happens to be the first name of Gleason's TV character, Ralph Cramden."
    (Chrysti M. Smith, Verbivore's Feast, Second Course: More Word & Phrase Origins. Farcountry Press, 2006)
  • Cabal
    "The backronym cabal was formed from the names of five ministers of King Charles II. The ministers, Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale, were at the bottom of various political intrigues in the early 1670s. According to history, these five, plus others, defaulted on the national debt by closing the exchequer in 1670, started a war with Holland in 1672, and entered into an alliance with the hated French in 1673. The English use of the word cabal to mean a group of conspirators predates the nefarious schemes of these five men by at least 25 years."
    (David Wilton, Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Perl
    "Perl is a word that has backronyms. Various expansions attributed to the letters in Perl were invented after the programming language was named. Practical Extraction and Report Language is a popular backronym for Perl. A less gracious backronym is Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister."
    (Jules J. Berman, Perl Programming for Medicine and Biology. Jones & Bartlett, 2007)

Pronunciation: BAK-ri-nim

Alternate Spellings: bacronym

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "backronym (words)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). backronym (words). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "backronym (words)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).