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Also: posh, S.O.S., news, golf, wop
Thursday, March 27, 2008   2:09 PM

So I won a bar bet yesterday after one of my friends claimed that tip was actually an acronym for "To Insure Promptness."

Or something! She wasn't quite sure. But I was sure that tip didn't stand for anything, sure enough to put a 6-pack of Springboard Ale on the line.

Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for tip:

"give a small present of money to," 1610, "to give, hand, pass," originally thieves' cant, perhaps from tip (v.3) "to tap." The meaning "give a gratuity to" is first attested 1706. The noun in this sense is from 1755; the meaning "piece of confidential information" is from 1845; the verb in this sense is from 1883; tipster first recorded 1862.

O, bacronyms! So interesting yet so false. It's not like I'm just too clever to fall for them, either: for about 10 years I thought that phat was an acronym for Pretty Hot And Tempting.

(The best actual acronym is either the ubiquitous snafu or taser, a barely-plausible abbreviation for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle.)

It's always disappointing to find out that a good etymology was just too good to be truth. A good rule is that, at least in English, if it's an old word like tip, it's almost certainly not an acronym. David Wilton's Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends can back me up:

The fact is, however, that very few words actually begin their life as acronyms, and most of these are proper nouns like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and NORAD (North American Air Defense Command). Also, forming words from acronyms is a distinctly twentieth- (and now twenty-first-) century phenomenon. There is only one known pre-twentieth-century word with an acronymic origin and it was in vogue for only a short time in 1886. The word is colinderies or colinda, an acronym for the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in London that year.

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I believe there were some other pre-twentieth-century acronyms, notably OK (assuming that it really does come from oll korrect, as the evidence suggests).


But even though there may be a handful of examples from before 1900, it's a pretty safe bet that if the word predates World War II, it doesn't come from an acronym.

I think that what Wilton is talking about here are acronyms in the narrow sense, i.e. abbreviations pronounced phonetically, as opposed to initialisms like OK.

(I always have to go to Language Log to make sure I'm using those terms correctly... I'm never sure if initialism or abbreviation is the catch-all.)

Not that I'm down on OK. I'm a huge fan of the oll korrect theory, which actually came up during our tip discussion at the bar.

I love the term "bacronym."

I vote for "snafu" as BAE (Best Acronym Ever).

Because of the profanity-avoidance technique it employs.

I heard the "to ensure promptness" etymology on CBC radio recently. arghghg

Hey TootsNYC, "Situation Normal: All *Fouled* Up". What profanity? ;-)

(In the same vein, we used to say the retort to a newbie who hadn't researched before asking, i.e., "RTFM" stood for "Read The (Fine* Manual". :-)

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