How many acronyms do you use in a day? “Have you RSVP’d to Sue’s baby shower yet?” “I need you to email your teacher back ASAP.” “OMG, that meme made me LOL all day.”
Acronyms and initialisms (when the letters in an abbreviation are pronounced individually instead of as a word) can make our daily conversations quicker and more efficient, but only if they’re easily understood. The examples above are obvious and well known — but there are also not-so-obvious acronyms, as well as words you might not have known were acronyms. If you’ve ever wanted to get certified as a scuba diver, for example, you could have said instead: “I want to get certified as a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus diver.”
Words such as “scuba” and “radar” (RAdio Detection And Ranging) are so widespread and commonly used that they’re listed in the dictionary as standard words. Here are some other acronyms you may not be familiar with.
BASE jump — Building, Antenna, Span, Earth
BASE (or base) jumping — which involves making a parachute jump from a fixed point, rather than an airplane — was developed in the late 1970s. A skydiver named Carl Boenish coined the acronym “BASE,” with each letter representing the different things from which jumpers could launch themselves: buildings, antenna towers, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs or other rock formations).
CAPTCHA — Completely Automatic Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart
This relatively young acronym appears all over the web when someone is trying to log in to a site or make a payment, for example. Coined by a cryptographer, “captcha” is a deliberate pun on “capture” and describes an authentication system whose purpose is to prevent the automated misuse of a website. (A “Turing test” is a test of a computer’s ability to display intelligence, named for mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing.)
LASER — Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation
With usages ranging from a laser light show at a rock concert, to a professor’s laser pointer, to laser-beam special effects in films, the acronym “laser,” first coined in 1960, describes any device that produces an intense, narrow beam of light, either continuously or in pulses, by exciting atoms and molecules. The laser device, as well as its acronym, came after the device known as a “maser,” standing for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.”
TASER — Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle
Though it sounds similar to “laser” and “maser,” “taser” is the proprietary name for a non-lethal weapon developed by American inventor Jack Cover in the 1970s. The weapon fires a cluster of electrified barbs attached to battery-charged wires, which causes temporary paralysis. The name comes from a science fiction book series about an inventor named Tom Swift that Cover enjoyed as a child.
YAHOO — Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle
The name of the popular search engine Yahoo! is a good example of a backronym, or an acronym deliberately created to spell out a particular word. The word “yahoo” was invented by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, but the search engine founders chose it as their business name because it was easy to pronounce and remember. They later developed a slightly irreverent phrase for the acronym that nonetheless served as an accurate description for their search engine. “Hierarchical” referred to the arrangement of directory layers of the Yahoo! database, while “officious” described the office workers using the database. “Oracle” was intended to mean “a source of truth and wisdom.”
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