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June 18, 2011

Where Do Words Come From? Sonar To Snafu

It's been a while since I've shared some of my thoughts and experiences on where words come from. And I have to admit....

...that words in the English language come from some pretty strange places. I've noticed that American usage is particularly, ahem, I'll say fruitful.

For example, what would you guess the words radar, laser, scuba and snafu all have in common?

How about nimby, sonar and radio?

The easy answer is that they all have five letters, but do you know anything else about them? Their meanings for example?

Most of these words come from World War II. They are shortened versions of phrases, acronyms to be precise. RADAR for example means radio detection and ranging, LASER originally was Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. SCUBA means self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
SNAFU was originally an American military term meaning situation normal:all fouled up. If you know your English language swear words, you can put another "F" word (perhaps also an acronym itself) inside that acronym.

NIMBY is not a military term. It means Not In My Back Yard and refers to any ugly or perhaps necessary building or utility - like a nuclear power plant or sewage treatment facility - that we may need or even want, but we don't want it anywhere near where WE live.

Acronyms can also be used to help remember things. For example in physics, the colors of the visible spectrum (the rainbow) are ROY G. BIV (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet). In USA geography classes, students use HOMES to remember the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior).

Sometimes the acronym becomes so familiar, even though we know it is not a word, we still forget that it once stood for something. DVD for example, now has no official meaning: its advocates could not agree on whether the initials stood for "Digital Video Disc" or "Digital Versatile Disc", and now both terms are used. Or Neither.

Send us any words that make you crazy and be sure to let us know what it is about English and language learning that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf is currently a radio host (http://www.tacoma.fm/) and a newspaper columnist http://www.thenewstribune.com/opinion/columnists/morf_morford/ and would love to do either one of those somewhere else in the world.

Posted by mmorf at June 18, 2011 10:00 PM


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