What Is a Backronym?

HOPE - an example of a backronym created from an existing word

Have you ever come across an acronym like HOPE, GOLF, or TIPS? If so, you've encountered a backronym.

Backronyms are a preexisting words that, through the magic of wordplay, have been transformed into acronyms. Some examples include:

  • HOPE (Have Only Positive Expectations)
  • GOLF (Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden)
  • TIPS (To Insure Prompt Service)
  • FORD (Found on Road Dead)
  • WOOT (We Own the Other Team)

What is the difference between backronyms and acronyms?

Backronym is short for "backwards acronym," a reference to how backronyms are constructed. As you likely know, acronyms are new words constructed from the first letter(s) of each word in an existing phrase. (Scuba, constructed from the phrase Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, is a common example acronym.)

In contrast, creating a backronym consists of assigning a word to each letter in an existing word, constructing a new phrase. (Such as To Insure Prompt Service, created from the existing word tips.) Thus, backronyms are "acronyms constructed backwards."

Why do people create backronyms?

To those who create them, backronyms are a way to engage in some fun wordplay and, often, have a laugh. Many backronyms are phrases that wordsmiths have created for comedic effect (think FORD) or to show off their cleverness (think TIPS).

The United States Congress is especially fond of backronyms, and commonly creates them when naming bills that would otherwise have boring, lengthy, or otherwise unappealing names. For example, the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, and CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act all use backronyms in their names.

In some cases, however, backronym creators are arguably too successful. If a backronym fits an existing word incredibly well, people sometimes come to believe that the existing word is and always has been an acronym. For example, while many people claim that SOS is an acronym for "save our souls" or "save our ship," both those phrases are actually backronyms. (SOS doesn't stand for anything; it was created because it's easily identifiable when sent via morse code.)