In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill, people are turning to a familiar form of folk protest: messing with acronyms and initialisms.
In the wake of the horrific BP oil-spill, many serious questions have been raised, such as: “What will the long-term damage be?” and “Can’t the government do more to help?”
Human nature being what it is, a sillier query has come up too: “What the heck does BP stand for, anyway?” A snarky letter to California’s Union paper by reader Dan Whittman gives a good taste of how people are answering that question: “Corporate abbreviations have always been interesting to me. Take BP, for instance. It might mean British Petroleum, but for all we know it could really mean bipolar. It might also mean Baloney Peddlers or Bolshevik Propagators, or Broken Promises or Barack's Problem or Bad Policy or Bungling Putzs. People and corporations are not always straightforward, just like politicians and celebrities. Show business, there's no business like it.”
All over the web and beyond, people are joining the mockery-fest with their own explanations of BP’s “true meaning”—a satiric treatment every well-known acronym (like FEMA, pronounced as a word) and initialism (like BP, pronounced as initials) has received at some point. Back in 1978, Clemson University English Professor Sterling Eisiminger used the term “satiric explanations” for nicknames like “Uncle Sam Ain’t Released Me Yet” (U.S. Army) and “University of Sick Chickens” (University of South Carolina). Such nicknames are a common form of protest, and mocking the unconscionably destructive BP might be the best-ever use of this perennial form of folk humor.
While BP’s website says their brand stands for “beyond petroleum”—and it originally meant “British Petroleum”—angry, dismayed people have offered enough alternatives to fill a dictionary. Some names comment on the many attempts to stop the flow of oil, such as “Bungled Plugjob,” while others take an environmental tack (Blatant Polluter, Banish Petroleum, Buy a Prius). Many refer to political chicanery (Bush and Partners, Bankster’s Pals, Buy Politicians), immorality (Bay Pirates, Bad People), a sense of hopelessness (Bleary Prospects, Begin Praying, Biblical Proportions), simple frustration (Beyond Punishment, Beyond the Pale, Blatantly Pompous), or colossal stupidity (Biggest Putzheads, Butthead Petroleum, Brainless Pinheads). Though most names have come from anonymous Internet writers, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin got in on the act by saying BP “stands for Beyond Patience.”
Businesses take a beating in this area—as do MBAs, also known as “Mediocre But Arrogant" and "Master of the Business Apocalypse”—but our initial-happy government is probably the number one target. When people are unhappy with the FBI, they say it stands for “Flagrant Blatant Idiocy,” “Fumbling Bumbling Idiots,” and “Fat, Bored, and Impotent,” while the CIA gets called “Criminals in Action,” “Cockiness in Abundance,” and “Capitalism Intelligence Army.” The even-less-popular IRS takes its share of expected abuse, as the “Internal Reaming System” and “Internal Robbery Service.” On the American Dialect Society listserv, Victor Steinbok informed me of the clever “No Such Agency” name for the NSA. BP should be thankful they only have two letters to absorb the public’s rage and wit.
Sports is another initial-filled arena, and I’ve been hearing the NFL described as the “No Fun League” for years, while critical fans have come up with “National Frugal League,” “Nutty Fan Litigation,” “National Felons League,” and “National Favre League”—a fitting slam on the preposterous amount of attention the dithering future Hall of Famer receives each year for his will-I-or-won’t-I-retire routine. Several folks have suggested “Not For Long,” which can emphasize the fleetingness of a team’s success, a player’s career, or the league’s overall prosperity. Meanwhile, NBA maven and bestseller Bill Simmons welcomed us to the “No Benjamins Association” and “No Balls Association,” so-named for that league’s lack of cash and courage at various times.
Such inventions are a great way of making fun or a point, but they’re a horrible way of identifying the origin of a word. As the urban legend has it, “cop,” “golf,” and “tip” began as “constable on patrol,” “gentleman only, ladies forbidden,” and “to insure promptness,” respectively. These explanations are all bunk, along with the theory that “For unlawful carnal knowledge” or “Fornication under consent of the king” is the origin of the f-word. Another popular obscenity supposedly began life on the high seas as “ship high in transit”—that’s also crap. Whenever presented with a convenient, acronymic etymology for a word, you really can’t be too suspicious. Or, as Eisiminger said in his article on the subject: “...finding the real source of a word has spoiled many a clever story or pretty fantasy.”
In the most in-depth look at this topic I could find, the late Nicholas Howe collected hundreds of amazing examples in The Journal of American Folklore back in 1989. Howe wrote that wondering what a BP or CIA “really” stands for creates a “linguistic riddle” motivated by a critical stance: “To recast an initialism into a riddle expresses a proud and satiric refusal to accept the official. It is, quite simply, to mock and thus deny language which is so opaque, and even duplicitous, that it must disguise itself behind an arrangement of initial letters.”
“A proud and satiric refusal” to accept “opaque, and even duplicitous” language? Whoa. Sounds like Howe nailed the situation 21 years ago, and he did it about as well as The Onion has today. When we treat initialisms as linguistic riddles, we all get to contribute to the English language’s collective, democratic, endless edition of The Onion. That’s awfully satisfying when dealing with the likes of Balderdash Productions.