Acronyms, bacronyms and the wisdom of Humpty Dumpty

This entry was posted on Monday, March 30th, 2009 at 7:39 PM

I love it when I learn something new especially when it’s about words.The other day I had a meeting with a lovely new client, Anna Maria Ciangola. Anna Maria is a seaweed consultant/therapist and she wants me to write the copy for her new website.

She’s re-launching her current company, Simply Seaweed, under a new name – Sanare Per Aquam.  It’s Latin for health through water or to heal through water.

Some people believe that Spa is an acronym of this Latin phrase and that it’s how the word entered the language. I decided to find out and was taken down a fascinating path that didn’t have much to do with spas, seaweed or water therapy.

According to Wikipedia, its derivation from sanare per aquam doesn’t appear before early this century and it is probably a “bacronym”.

‘Mmm all very interesting but what’s a bacronym?’ I thought to myself.

And here’s what I found. A bacronym is exactly what it sounds like – a reverse acronym.

An acronym of course is a word formed from the initials of a phrase and apparently there is no evidence of them before the 20th Century.

Examples include:

Radar – radio detection and ranging

Laser – light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation.

So a bacronym is constructed to make an existing word, such as spa, into an acronym. SOS is another example.

SOS was chosen as a distress signal because the Morse code is unmistakable and easy to transmit. Three dots, three dashes, and three dots.

SOS didn’t start out life as ‘save our ship’ or ‘save our souls’. Thanks to Cindy Shamel for that last example.

And that’s not all.  Bacronym is a portmanteau word – a word that’s formed by combining two words, in this case back and acronym.

According to Jonathan Gabby in his Copywriters’ Compendium, “Portmanteaus blend together shared characteristics of their component words.  Often they blend the initial sounds or syllables of one word with the last sounds or syllables of another.”

Guesstimate is an example. Other examples include the hideous but descriptive, webinar, and:

Advertorial - advertisement and editorial

Brunch – breakfast and lunch

Chortle – snort and chuckle – another example from the pen of Lewis Carroll.

The author, Lewis Carroll, popularised portmanteaus, and perhaps most famously of all in the poem ‘Jabberwocky‘ in ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’.

Here’s how Humpty Dumpty explains portmanteaus to Alice:

“‘Slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’… You see it’s like a portmanteau-there are two meanings packed up into one word”

“‘Mimsy’ is ‘flimsy and miserable’ (there’s another portmanteau … for you)”.

Bet you never thought of Humpty Dumpty as a wordsmith did you?

But back to spas and seaweed.  Wikipedia says that spa comes from the Belgian town of Spa.  Personally, I like the idea of it as a Roman acronym.

Commonly misused words | One word or two?

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Hello. I'm Elaine, I'm a copywriter and this is my blog.

It's mostly about words and writing - things that inspire me, entertain me, and make me smile. Sometimes it's about things that horrify me so much I want to scream and shout!

I hope you enjoy it and find it useful. And speaking of useful - scroll down and take a look at the Oxford Dictionaries tool.

Click here to find out a bit more about me.

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