What Is a Backronym?

Backronyms are pre-existing words that have been transformed into acronyms

Has anyone tried to convince you that COP, TIPS, or SOS are acronyms? If so, you've encountered a backronym.

A backronym is a pre-existing word that, through the magic of wordplay, has been transformed into an acronym. Some examples of backronyms include:

  • HOPE, sometimes said to stand for Have Only Positive Expectations
  • GOLF, sometimes said to stand for Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden
  • TIPS, sometimes said to stand for To Insure Prompt Service
  • FORD, sometimes said to stand for Found on Road Dead
  • WOOT, sometimes said to stand for 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.)