11 words you’ve probably forgotten were acronyms

Letter blocks from a printing press

Let’s be honest here. We’ve lost the true definitions of LOL and YOLO. I mean, nobody laughs out loud when they say (or text) LOL anymore, let alone chuckle. And as for YOLO? (short for “you only live once”.) Well, it’s usually said right before a person demonstrates their lack of brain cells. (And if all goes badly, their lack of vital signs too.)

Such acronyms that can be pronounced without having to say the letters individually (unlike IDK, TTYL, and the lot) might seem like a 21st-century invention, but actually, it’s been going on for a little longer than that. And in fact, there are quite a few words in our modern vocabulary that began as acronyms.

Let’s begin our tour, shall we?

1. Scuba

The Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus got its name from Major Christian Lambertsen of the US Army, and, as you can tell, it was exactly that. Coined in 1952, the acronym began its life in all caps (i.e. SCUBA), but eventually entered mainstream use as scuba.

2. Sonar

The use of SOund Navigation And Ranging was first done by Leonardo da Vinci, who apparently placed a tube in the water and then listened for noises coming out of it. This technology, however, would enter mainstream use with the advent of mechanised naval warfare in the First World War.

3. Canola

The etymology of the word canola is debated, with some claiming it was derived from Canada-ola, with “ola” meaning oil, while others claim Canada oil low acid. Either way, it was cultivated via plant breeding from rapeseed, and it turned out to be a great cooking oil.

4. Laser

Light Amplification via Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Need I say more?

5. Gulag

This isn’t technically an English word. It’s Russian, and a Russian acronym. But since the word has been adopted by the English (as usual), it’s here. The original phrase is Glavnoye upravleniye lagerey, which means “Main Camp Administration”. Basically, the gulags were forced labour camps instituted by Joseph Stalin, and they were not a nice place to be in.

6. Taser

This, I think, wins the prize for being weird and not actually being that descriptive. It stands for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. Apparently the inventor of the taser, a NASA researcher named Jack Cover, named it in honour of one of his favourite books, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle. Despite its odd origins, however, the word has been adopted into the English lexicon.

7. Modem

The word modem doesn’t come from the first letters of five different words. Rather, it comes from the first syllables of two words, and it was initially called the modulator-demodulator. Thus, modem.

8. Radar

Like its sibling sonar, radar was (and is) heavily used in military fields, though it has entered wide use in other fields too. It’s short for RAdio Detection And Ranging.


This word hasn’t exactly entered common English, but when I was younger, I thought the unit’s job was literally to “swat” criminals, sort of like flies. I know better now, and, I know the actual acronym too: Special Weapons And Tactics.

10. Navy SEAL

Again, when I was younger, I assumed they were called SEALs because they worked for the navy, sort of like divers or something. However, it turns out that SEAL stands for SEa, Air and Land. Sort of confusing since they’re part of the navy, but whatever.

11. Interpol

The International Criminal Police Organization changed their name to Interpol in 1956, ten years after selecting the name INTERPOL for their telegraphic address.

And that concludes my list of common acronyms, or rather, acronyms that aren’t really acronyms anymore. What other words do you know that used to be acronyms?

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