Colorful stories of acronyms are often false

No, “golf” does not mean “gentlemen only; ladies forbidden.” Rather, its dry etymology leads us back to the Middle Dutch word “colf” or “colve.”


English words rarely get their start as acronyms. Looking at the number of folk etymologies that explain acronymic origins, though, you might think that many common terms were stitched together from the first letters of other words. English does contain acronyms, of course, but they tend to be produced in academic, military, or governmental contexts, and first appeared in the late 19th century. 

Laser is a good example. The word was coined in 1959 because it rolls off the tongue more easily than “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” 

Snafu – “a situation marked by errors or confusion ... [or] an error causing such a situation,” according to Merriam-
Webster – comes from the first letters of “situation normal, all fouled up,” popular 1940s military slang. 

The “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” was patented in the 1950s, and gave us scuba.

False acronymic etymologies tend to be convoluted and dramatic. One example is posh, “elegant, fashionable” or “typical of ... the upper classes.” The story goes that rich 19th-century British travelers would book cabins on the port (left) side of the ship on journeys to India, and on the starboard (right) side on the way back, because these would be the coolest cabins for the hot voyage. These tickets would be stamped POSH, for “port out, starboard home,” which then came to describe the wealthy travelers themselves. There is no evidence that this story is true, but it’s much more interesting than the term’s real etymology, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “origin unknown.” 

News is a surprising candidate for an acronym. It has been used since 1417 to refer to “new occurrences as a subject of report or talk”; “the news” is simply “what’s new.” In the 17th century, a poet noticed that news was made up of the first letters of the cardinal directions, and by the 19th century this coincidence had become an origin story. An 1845 dictionary of etymology defines newspaper as “a paper containing intelligence from the North, East, West, and South” – from everywhere, in other words.  

Golf was first played in Scotland in the 15th century by women and men, aristocrats and tradespeople. As the game developed, it became associated with the wealthy men who founded private clubs to build and maintain courses. In the 1990s, a story arose that the word itself reflects the sport’s exclusionary tendencies – “gentlemen only; ladies forbidden.” Actually, golf comes from the Middle Dutch word colf or colve, meaning “stick, club, bat,” via the Scottish gouf

Colorful origin stories for acronyms are fun, but are unlikely to be true. 

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