Monday, 3 December 2012

Tipping the scales

On Twitter recently (I can't find it, so the perp can breathe easy - but it was a retweet from the sort of authoritative-sounding handle under whose cover so much misinformation is spread on SN sites... hang on, I've got it. @OMGFacts) I met that old canard about TIP  being an acronym for 'To Insure Promptness'. I asked them for a reference, but I'm still waiting. They would probably, if they bothered that much (inventing 'OMG facts' must keep them so busy that they can't have much time to spare for old-fashioned values like accuracy) have cited one of the 'sources' demolished here, which says:
The word “tip” is often inaccurately claimed to be an acronym for terms such as “to insure prompt service”, “to insure proper service”, “to improve performance”, and “to insure promptness”. However, this etymology contradicts the Oxford English Dictionary and is probably an example of a backronym.
There are a few more-or-less plausible alleged sources, but it's pretty clearly a backronym., although when that article goes on to say
Moreover, most of these backronyms incorrectly require the word “insure” instead of the correct “ensure”. 
it is being anachronistic. What it says is true of the ensure/insure meanings today but the first claimed sighting dates back to a time when the meaning/spelling relationship wasn't fixed.

The clever people of DEC (RIP) - in the days when they were clever, recognized the attraction of backronyms and named a new (at the time) systems programming language in an un-backronymable way. BLISS was the System Software  Implementation Library Backwards. Some years later, this self-referentiality was developed by the namers of GNU, a Unix-like language, whose name stood for GNU's Not UNIX.

David Crystal, in The Story of English in 100 Words, says acronyms are typically three letters long, with a few exceptions such as WYSIWYG. He was presumably not involved with the pre-www Internet, in which a search engine called Gopher (in which the daemon 'went for' information) was superseded by VERONICA; in fact, VERONICA was launched shortly after. the World-Wide Web , but just in time to meet overwhelming competition from more user-friendly web-search engines. That article is a 'stub', so I can't check the precise meaning of the name; but I remember the RO bit stood for 'Rodent-Oriented'. (There is a new generation of VERONICA, released in the late noughties as part of the OverBite Project, which '...[brings] gopherspace back to modern operating systems, browsers and mobile devices [their bolding]'.)

Back with acronyms, there are many true acronyms that are well-attested: RADAR, SCUBA...; sadly,  there is little evidence for POSH meaning 'Port Out, Starboard Home' (supposed cabin-choice for effete heliophobic (is that a word? Anyway, it is now, and means 'sun-shunning') P&O travellers on the voyage to and from India). But some of them were so successful that the word became fully 'domesticated' and developed spellings and derivatives of their own (ignoring the derivation). LASER (note the s) is "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation", which spawned its own verb, 'to lase', in 1962. 'Laser' has 625,000,000 hits on Google; but 'lazer' has 152,000,000.

FLAK too has 'naturalized'. It started life as a near-acronym for the German Fliegerabwehrkanone, referring to anti-aircraft guns. But in 1963 it became more generally used to mean 'criticism'. I wonder whether it predates or post-dates the management concept of 'air-cover' (protection from hostile criticism while getting on with the job, and no doubt 'driving profits to the bottom line going forward'). The spelling a before k, typically, in English words, makes the sound /eɪ/ in a stressed syllable, as in 'flaking', 'faking', forsaking'... .  So, to normalize the word in a non-German context, it is often spelled 'flack'. In fact, the non-German context and anglicization of the word is so strong in the case of a sort of PR person who repels adverse criticism that it seems to me that the added c is perfectly defensible - and many dictionaries agree. Allowing for this, and the surname 'Flack', there must still be among Google's 17.3 million hits for flaCk - easily enough flack misspellings to outweigh the just over 4,000,000 hits for flak.

On the subject of this 'vowel preservation by changed spelling', I'm reminded of a word that is not an acronym but is dear to my heart, as at the age of 9 I was despatched by my mother - GBH [that's Gawd Bless Her, stupid boy!] to a Roman bakery to get quattordici panini and asked by mistake for quaranta (a sophisticated and improbable mistake for a 9-year-old, but I was there). More recently - it seems to me to have happened in the last 20/30 years - panini have become commonplace in England, and have been anglicized to the extent of the plural marking (the final -i) being ignored; most English speakers would order 'a panini' - a solecism which I resist myself, although I have often taken the coward's way out ('One of those').

The spelling of <consonant> + 'anin' is rare in English, according to my dictionary of choice (the one I have installed, the Macmillan English Dictionary, which allows me to do 'clever' searches), especially where the a is stressed (as in caning, waning and so on); where the a is unstressed there are a few words such as melanin). Returning to the previous digression (pronunciation of panini in English) a few years ago I saw in the window of a Reading café the abomination panNini, where (as in canning. planning and a number of similar words) the double n differentiates the words from the unrelated caning and planing). Of course, the double n in banning isn't involved in any such differentiation; but what concerns the present argument is that when there are such pairs the double n marks the difference. So that one can understand the Reading restaurateur's (and dear God save us from people who think there should be an extra n in that word) mistake, preserving the short /æ/ by doubling the n.

Anyway, where was I?

TTFN. BRB (OK. there's a difference between acronyms and initialisms; but not everyone observes it - and what, anyway, is CD-ROM?)


Update 3 December 2012, 16.10 - corrected Google counts for fla[c]k. 

Update: 2013.10.02.16:20
Header updated:

 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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