Acronyms: Where do they come from and what's behind them?

Let’s dive into the world of acronyms and see what kinds of phrases lie beneath the surface.

 Israeli divers prepare to scuba dive off the Red Sea resort of Eilat on December 12, 2021.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Israeli divers prepare to scuba dive off the Red Sea resort of Eilat on December 12, 2021.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

There are many words that have entered our common parlance as acronyms. Essentially, an acronym is an abbreviation that is formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word in itself. The term comes from the Greek roots acr-, meaning “height “or “summit,” and -onym, meaning “name.”

The word “scuba” is a good example of an acronym. It is the abbreviated form of the phrase “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.” The diving gear was invented in France by Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan in 1943, which they called the Aqua-Lung. The term “scuba” was coined in 1952 by American environmental medicine and diving medicine specialist Dr. Christian James Lambertsen.

In that context, let’s dive into the world of acronyms and see what kinds of phrases lie beneath the surface.

Navy SEALs, for instance, are the US Navy’s primary special operations force. Although the aquatic acronym is apt for their marine anti-enemy activities, the SEALs are commissioned much farther afield, as the acronym stands for “sea, air, and land.” Established in 1952, the all-male SEAL teams are typically ordered to capture or eliminate high-level targets or to gather intelligence behind enemy lines.

A detection device used by the Navy is sonar. An acronym for “sound navigation and ranging,” sonar is a technique for detecting and determining the distance and direction of underwater objects by acoustic means.

 George Clooney poses before the opening of the fourth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival on December 9, 2007. (credit: REUTERS/STEVE CRISP) George Clooney poses before the opening of the fourth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival on December 9, 2007. (credit: REUTERS/STEVE CRISP)

Another detection device that is an acronym is radar, which stands for “radio detection and ranging.” This system uses radio waves to determine the distance, angle, or velocity of objects such as ships, aircraft, missiles or motor vehicles.

When hostile situations arise on the ground, the US police force might send in an armed SWAT team. An acronym for “special weapons and tactics,” these military-like units are trained to deal with high-risk occurrences such as terrorism, hostage-takings and riots.

If an operation runs afoul, it might be deemed “snafu.” This acronym stands for the sarcastic expression “Situation normal: “all f***ed up.” It generally means that the situation is bad, but that it is a normal state of affairs. The term is believed to have originated in the US Marine Corps during World War II.

Sometimes rather than the first letters of a phrase forming a word, the letters themselves are used as a shorthand for the phrase. For example, an APB – all points bulletin – is issued from one US law enforcement agency to another regarding a missing person or a wanted suspect. If the suspect uses an alias, the APB might begin with “John Armstrong, aka Henry Wilson...” The “aka” stands for “also known as.”


Leaving the underworld and the underwater world, let’s enter the field of medicine for a spell. There are many medical terms that we use very often, but what do they stand for? Let’s take a look. BP stands for “blood pressure”; IV stands for “intravenous”; EMT stands for “emergency medical technician; CPR stands for “cardiopulmonary resuscitation”; MRI stands for “magnetic resonance imaging”; CT stands for “computed tomography”; and ECG stands for “electrocardiogram” or the German spelling, EKG, “elektrokardiogram.” And interestingly enough, the all too familiar COVID-19 is an acronym as well. It stands for “coronavirus disease of 2019.”

A word often heard in a hospital’s ER (“emergency room”) is “stat,” which is the medical equivalent of ASAP (“as soon as possible”). “Stat” is not an acronym but an abbreviation of statim, a Latin word that means “immediately.”


Speaking of ER, the TV show ER, which ran for 15 seasons (1994-2009) and catapulted George Clooney to stardom, is rated as one of the 10 best medical dramas of all time. Since the early days of TV, which featured the likes of Medic (1954-’56), Dr. Kildare (1961-’66), Ben Casey (1961-’66), and Marcus Welby, M.D.(1969-’76), that genre has been captivating audiences for decades. Another series in the top 10 is M*A*S*H, which ran for 11 seasons (1972-’83). The acronym in the title stands for “mobile army surgical hospital.”

Currently, two popular TV franchises are the forensic crime series CSI and the police procedural NCIS. The term CSI stands for “crime scene investigation.” NCIS stands for “Naval Criminal Investigative Service.” In addition to the abbreviated titles, the shows’ scripts include shorthand terms such as COD (“cause of death”); GSW (“gunshot wound”); GSR (“gunshot residue”); and DOJ (“Department of Justice”).


On a more cheerful note, let’s take a spin into the realm of musical entertainment. One of the best-selling acts in popular music is the Swedish foursome ABBA. The name of the group is an acronym of the performers’ first names: Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. In 1974, ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with their song “Waterloo.” In 2005, that original composition was chosen as the best song in the competition’s 50-year history. Mamma mia!

As an aside, another Swedish household name (in more ways than one) is IKEA. The name of the multinational conglomerate is an acronym derived from the initials of the founder, Ingvar Kamprad; Elmtaryd, the farm where he grew up; and the nearby village Agunnaryd.

One of the performers in the British pop group the Spice Girls was Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice. “Posh” was an apt descriptor for the elegant, sophisticated singer. It is believed that the term “posh” is an acronym for “port out, starboard home,” which refers to the cooler, north-facing cabins booked by wealthy British passengers traveling to India and back.


The posh former Spice Girl is married to soccer superstar David Beckham. Among the arsenal of accolades that he has accumulated for his athletic abilities are three ESPY Awards. ESPY is an acronym for “excellence in sports performance yearly” award.

For entertainers, the pinnacle of pride is to amass an EGOT. That acronym stands for an Emmy (for TV), a Grammy (for recording), an Oscar (for film), and a Tony (for theater). To date, 16 celebrities have garnered that coveted collection. Among the A-listers on that roster are Audrey Hepburn, Mel Brooks, John Gielgud, Whoopi Goldberg, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and John Legend.

Taking the EGOT one accolade further is the PEGOT, which adds a Pulitzer Prize or a Peabody Award to the mix. The Pulitzer is granted for achievements in newspaper, magazine, online journalism, literature, and musical composition. It was established in 1917 by provisions in the will of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. The annual prize is awarded in 21 categories.

The Peabody Award honors the most powerful, enlightening, and invigorating stories in television, radio, and online media. Established in 1940, the annual award is granted to some 30 recipients. It is named for American investment banker and philanthropist George Foster Peabody.

As it stands, there are five recipients on the rarefied PEGOT roster. EGOT winners Richard Rodgers and Marvin Hamlisch have won a Pulitzer Prize, while Mike Nichols, Rita Moreno, and Barbra Streisand have added a Peabody Award to their trophy cases.


Besides the silver screen or the flat-screen TV, many people are glued to their computer monitors and smartphone displays, whereon loads (and downloads) of acronyms abound. For example, “smart” stands for “self-monitoring analysis and reporting technology.” CD-ROM stands for “compact disc read-only memory.” CPU stands for “central processing unit.” DVD stands for “digital versatile disc.” PDF stands for “portable document format.” JPEG stands for “joint photographic experts group.” The “SIM” in SIM card stands for “subscriber identity module.” And SMS stands for “short message service.”


When it comes to short messages, the world of texting has an ever-expanding abbreviated language all its own. Terms such as TMI (“too much information”); LOL (“laughing out loud”); YOLO (“you only live once”); FOMO (“fear of missing out”); BTW (“by the way”); NP (“no problem”); IMO (“in my opinion”); LMK (“let me know”); BFF (“best friend forever”); BAE (“before anyone else”); BRB (“be right back”); TTFN (“ta-ta for now”); and TTYL (“talk to you later”) are just the tip of the initialized idiomatic iceberg.

TMI? I hope not. It’s only natural to be interested in the derivations of the elements around us. It’s in our DNA – i.e. (“id est”), our deoxyribonucleic acid. ■