I Love the Smell of an Acronym in the Morning. (2010)

“ANOTHER three letter acronym”, he said smiling.


The computer sales-chap was well into his patter which was peppered with a preponderance of his particular parlance.

He talked about BPS, HDD, PPM, USB, PCI, DVD, CDR, PDA, DDR and the list of initials went on and on rolling off his forked tongue. This may have been the stuff that made his mouth water but it left a nasty taste in mine. He had such a verbal head of steam up that I felt would be rude to interrupt and tell him that TLA was not an acronym and neither were most of the other groups of three initials he was touting.

An acronym is a word. It comes from the old Greek acro-, and -nym. With acro- meaning point, top, tip or beginning. This is also the source of words like acrobat and acrophobia. Acrobat literally means tips of the toes or one who walks on them and acrophobia is a fear of heights. So it’s easy to get the picture of where acro- comes from. The second part of the word, -nym also hails from old Greek and means name. It is found in synonym and antonym. Many of us met these when we were in school and were told that synonyms are words that have the same meaning and antonyms are words with opposite meanings. We were told that happy is synonymous with glad and antonymous with sad. It follows then that acronyms are groups of initials that are also names. They are shortened forms of what we call things. For example it’s easier by any yardstick to say “NIMBY” than “Not In My Backyard” even if you’re in my front yard which is in the sticks.

While acronyms have been around probably as long as the written word, it seems that in recent years we have used them more frequently or that there is just more of them. And technology is not the only area that attracts them. In the last few decades of the last century there was a spate of acronyms that described people. YUPPie can from Young Urban Professional Person, YUMPie: Young Upwardly Mobile People, DINK: Double Income No Kids, SITCOM: Single Income Two Children Outrageous Mortgage and WOOPies: Well Off Older People.

Acronyms have less well-known relatives such as homonyms and eponyms. Homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings such as fair (light complexioned), fair (a festival or fete), fare (the cost of riding on a bus) and fare (food). Eponyms are words that are based on the name of a person or brand, like google instead of online search and hoover instead of vacuum cleaning, but we’ll talk about those another time.

So ANZAC is an acronym. It’s a name and we say it as a word. We call the Australian and New Zealand armies that fought at Gallipoli, ANZAC. We don’t say NSW as a word and hence it is not an acronym. We don’t say nsw. We say either “New South Wales” or “en ess double-you”. NSW is not a name. If it was you could call a dog by it. I can’t quite picture being on a crowded, off-leash beach and screaming out “nsw, here boy”. I’ve heard some strange names for dogs before but surely this would sound truly weird to those looking on. Clearly calling a dog nsw is not seeing the forest for the barking up the wrong tree. So acronyms are words or names that can be pronounced.

Some computer terms are acronyms. RAM and ROM are acronyms but the other computer terms that the sales chap mentioned above are not. They are just groups or lists of initials. I’ve always wanted to name something and using the time-honoured tradition an acronym should do the trick. We shall call, them ‘Non Acronym Initial Lists’, or ‘NAILs’. The name of that famous sandwich, BLT therefore is a NAIL not an acronym. However, add avocado and the NAIL becomes the four letter acronym, BLAT.

We could go hammer and tongs with this concept and talk about three letter nails and four letter nails and while this can be seen as hitting the nail on the head and nailing these acronym wannabees down there is another member of the initial list family that is between acronyms and NAILs. These could be called SAILs (Semi Acronymic Initial Lists) or PAILs (Psuedo Acronymic Initial Lists) and examples of them include Beamer (for BMW), Feebie (For FBI) and Beeb (for BBC).

Technology is to blame for many acronyms. One of the early ones was RADAR which is not really a true acronym uses a second letter. It is short for RAdio Detecting And Ranging. SCUBA is another early technology acronym and stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. LASER is also not exactly a true acronym as some initials are left out. So LASER and RADAR are probably PAILs or SAILs. LASER is Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. There are many other examples of acronyms that don’t exactly obey the rules but they are not worth splitting a hair’s breadth over.

Other notable acronyms that are found in the world of IT (which is a NAIL as we call it “eye tee”) are PICNIC which stands for Problem In Chair Not In Computer, GIGO for Garbage In Garbage Out, TWAIN for technology without an interesting name and WYSIWYG for What You See Is What You Get.

Acronyms have always been around but in recent years their number seem to have grown inordinately. Perhaps this is because we are short of time and they help in our busy lives but on the other hand perhaps we’d be better off without them. Better off if we stopped running on the smell of an oily rag and took time out to small the rose coloured glasses. Acronyms maybe thought of as language that has been minced, but they help us pronounce things that otherwise have long names so it can be said that acronyms are handy as they stop minced words getting stuck in one’s throat.

Changing Horses and Noting Takes (2011)


EPICENTRE. A year or two back a newsreader said that Mexico was the epicentre of the outbreak of Swine ‘flu. Epicentre is an interesting word as, like some other parts of our language, we are witnessing a change in its meaning. When I was at school, which was not too many decades ago, the geology textbook said, and the teacher concurred, that epicentre was the term used to describe the point on the earth’s surface directly above the disturbance that resulted in an earthquake. This made sense as the prefix epi- was used in other words to indicate above or on the surface. For example epidermis for top layer of the skin and epitaph for the writing on the surface of a tomb. Like many words its meaning is not constant and we just might be witnessing it change.

Penultimate. The advertisement said that the product was the penultimate in quality. Obviously what they thought the word meant and what it does mean, are two different things. Or were they really saying that the product was second best? Ultimate does not mean the very best but simply the last or something final or that comes at the end. Penultimate means second last. Have you ever been in a busy shop, one of those old fashioned ones where the customers gather on one side of a counter and the shop people on the other? Have you ever been in this situation and wondered when it was your turn as it’s not clear who arrived before you and who arrived after? I was told of a Spanish custom that sorts out this problem. When entering such a busy shop in Spain each customer asks the crowd “qien es el ultimo?” or “who is the last”. All the customer has to do is remember who preceded them to know when it’s their turn to be served. Clearly the Spanish word ultimo is close to the English word ultimate and means last. Ultimo is also the name of an inner suburb of Sydney. The name appears to have a shaded history as it was the name of the estate of one John Harris which occupied the area. Apparently John Harris escaped a court-marshal on a technicality in which the offence was recorded as “ultimo” meaning that it occurred last month rather than “instant” meaning this month. The practice of using “ultimo” and “instant” to refer to last month and this month was not confined to legal practices of the nineteenth century. As late as the 1960s business letters used the same terms. For example, Dear Sir, I refer to your letter of the 12th inst, meaning the 12th of this month.

Perhaps, if enough people keep using penultimate to mean the best of the best, it will end up meaning just that because words do change their meaning. For example literally used to mean sticking exactly to the literal or written word but today many use it to mean actually. So widely has this use been adopted that the Macquarie dictionary now lists “actually” as the third definition of Literally and notes that it “is regarded by some as non-standard, although increasing in frequency”.

We all know of people who are linguistically less flexible than ourselves. They have trouble with the changing nature of our language. Yet if they keep resisting while the language changes around them surely confusion will result for these sticks in the muddy waters. One change that often seems to result in twists in their underwear is the inexorable trend towards the collective plural. Thinking back to my school days again, we were taught that collective nouns were singular. It made no sense to use singular pronouns to describe things that obviously consisted of more than one. Yet with abject obedience we attached singular forms of verbs to collective nouns. We said the council enacts… the parliament rises … the band is … the group is … the organisation sells.

Even that bastion of grammatical exactitude, the ABC makes similar mistakes with number …. “the pair have been …” was heard on regional ABC news just the other day. But then, today we often hear the plural collective. The band are … the company sell a product … the council sit … the team are and even … the government are. And it seems the field of sports reporting is a leading light in this change in our language. We hear that Queensland are favourites to win the State of Origin … that Australia scores … that the team scores. It is easy to understand the collective plural and for some easier to understand than to stomach. Another change in our dynamic tongue is that of turning nouns into verbs. When the boss says “bin that idea” they are actually saying that the idea is no good and should be discarded or put in the bin. Another heard recently, although not exactly the verbification of a noun, is “architecting” which is not searching for missing buildings but rather the process of coming up with an architectural design. I thought I was being clever and that I was the first to coin the word verbification. However, when I googled it there were 8,620 results so it’s hardly new. By the way did you notice that google is the verbification of Google? Another heard recently is notetake. In the absence of a minute secretary for a committee meeting one of my colleagues, who should have known better, said that they would notetake. Surly they were offering to take notes.

It seems that the nature of our language is dynamic and that there is little we can do to change it. As long as the intended message is received does it matter if we change the way it is said? So as long as we don’t change horses in mid sentence we should eventually not short change the linguistic leopard’s spots. To those linguistic codgers who are nay sayers to change I say resistance is futile. For this columnist resistance is also fertile and I say to those who resist the changing nature of our language, they can eat the words right out of my hand.

Pulling Habits out of Rats

Q: What’s the difference between a magician and a psychologist?

A: One pulls rabbits out of hats and the other pulls habits out of rats!

Spoonerism is an eponym. An eponym is a word that refers to things that are named after people. For example the cardigan is named after the seventh Earl of Cardigan who was often seen wandering around in a sweater which had buttons down the front. Spoonerisms are named after the Reverend William A. Spooner (1844-1930) who was an Anglican clergyman.

Spooner had the habit of swapping the beginnings of words; often with humorous results. These slips of the tongue or “tips of the slung” are often perpetrated intentionally but it appears that Spooner had a real affliction. It has been reported that this was an involuntary speech defect and it may have well been. However, when a poorly focussed lens of history is coupled with the seduction of a good laugh, a history of Spooner has evolved in which it is difficult to distinguish between the real, the embellished and the totally fictitious. Histories like this may have limited value to the academic but when true colours are not true blue, out of the blue can come humour that may or may not be blue.

Many spoonerisms have been quoted in works ranging from the frivolous to the austere. It seems that Spooner when raising a toast to the dear old queen actually said “the queer old dean” and referred to the conquering king as the “kinquering cong”. Some of the spoonerisms that appeal to the funny bone are those where the result makes sense but not in the sense that the speaker intended. Down south there is an establishment called the Shellharbour Workers’ Club. Apply Spooner and it could become the “Wellharbour Shirkers’ Club”. One could explore the nooks and crannies of the club but Spooner might prefer to explore its crooks and nannies.

The “history” of Spooner also reports that the speech defect carried over into his activities. A common practice is to put salt on spilt red wine as salt has a mild bleaching effect. It has been said that Spooner would pour red wine on spilt salt. Others have reported Spooner as an Oxford don had said to a student that “he had hissed all the mystery lessons and tasted two whole worms”. Of course if Spooner was an academic at Oxford, and if Oxford students are like most students they would no doubt make up their own spoonerisms and embellish his. So instead of the busy dean they would say the dizzy bean and of course “I’d rather a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” which has been attributed to Tom Waits, W. C. Fields, Dorothy Parker and myself (but only on Friday nights after the second bottle of red). Clearly when there’s humour involved we render to Caesar that which is his and render renditions to the renderer.

Nursery rhymes and fairy stories have long been popular targets for spooneristic revision. Many of us have heard of Gransel and Hettel as well as Hansel and Grettel, the Devon Swarfs as well as the Seven Dwarfs. Often the results turn children’s stories into tales that appeal to an older audience. Rindacella and the pransome hince (Cindarella and the handsome prince) becomes such a tale when some creative license is taken with the script. Remember the story when the clock has just struck midnight and Rindacella runs from the ball. “Bum cack, Bum cack” (come back, come back) yelled the pransome hince. “You’ve slopped your dripper” (you’ve dropped your slipper). Of course Rindacella does not bum cack so the pransome hince travels the land to see which fainty doot would shit this farticular poo (what dainty foot would fit this particular shoe). Another version of Rindercella and the pronsome Hince was performed by Archie Campbell and a transcript of it can be found on the Goonerisms Spalore website. The last sentence of the transcript reads:

Now, the storal of the mory is this: If you ever go to a bancy fall and want to have a pransom hince loll in fove with you, don’t forget to slop your dripper!

I hope you are inspired to create your own Spoonerisms.