125 - Four letter words - the Urban Legend

POSH = Port Out, Starboard Home.

Sadly, no it doesn’t. Romany posh-houri = half pence hence posh is money, 1600s. Later, like 1830 or so, “He had not got the posh yet”, so still money. In 1890 it was in a dictionary of slang meaning a dandy. By 1914, it was in print and meant luxurious (after Luxor? I wish). My granny told me the standard story about Peninsular & Orient (P&O) selling ‘posh’ tickets to India. Too far, but the idea was that both ways you had the sea breezes, shade and any coastal views.1

The S.O.D2 says [slang, 1918; money, a dandy and thence] smart, swell, fine splendid. Snopes points out that POSH as at the top is in a song in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which perpetuates the belief.

FUCK = Fornication Under Consent of the King

FUCK = For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge

Found on the internet since 1995. The urban legend stems from needing permission to have a baby. China, not Britain [PRC: you register the baby at or before inception, effectively asking for permission]. Fornication is something you do with someone not your spouse, technically both are unmarried, so permission is inappropriate. Pity, yet again, ‘cos it’s a good story.

You might like the unassociated words Fucate, Fucivorous and Fucoid, all of which stem (so to speak) from sea-weeds of the family Fucacae.  Sometimes fucus, but read on. I enjoy this for lunch (being fucivorous) several times a week in term; I ate a fucoid lunch.

A different word group is Fucus, Fucate, Fucated Fucation; artificially coloured, originally from a red dye made from rock lichen; hence to apply cosmetics, face-painting. Hence: she was wearing a fucate lipstick.

SHIT = Stow High in Transit

The word is far too old for that to be true. SOD says in written use 1508 and 1585. The story goes that dried shit was carried by ship and when it got wet it fermented again, giving off methane and likely going bang. It wouldn’t stay dry if stored high. It would be nice if the acronym followed the practice. Please ship my shit SHIT so the container is not filled with seawater.

GOLF = Gentlemen Only: Ladies Forbidden.

I can think of clubs where this would be wished for. Golf as a word is reported as long ago as 1457 (SOD again). Adjacent is Goliard, a word for an educated buffoon, jester of the 12th and 13th centuries. “I say, I say, I say, forsooth that arrer wot hit Harald; dids’t see it? Neither did he....”

PHAT Pretty Hot and Tempting

Not in my SOD. Modern Slang adjective [Phat, Phatter, Phattest, M-W4] indicating a sexy attractive woman and also some good music. I’m listening to some phat music from the Stranglers while I type. Phatic is communication by touch (my Pear’s), but my COD3 says phatic speech is used for sociability rather than specificity. “How are you?”, “Nice day”, both meaning Hello. M-W4 agrees and also has the adjective and comparatives, saying slang, “Highly attractive or gratifying”.

SWAG - secretly we are gay and other mixes of words. see here.   None true.

NEWS - all the compass points. Don’t be silly. In China the order is EWNS, instead.


There are sub-classes of acronym:

A ‘proper’ acronym is the right word when the initials form a word that then loses the capitalisation, such as radar and laser5. A favourite of mine is tnstaafl, now in the dictionary lower case - there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Some acronyms keep some or all of the capitalisation, though are pronounced as words, such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Mips (Millions of instructions per second). WYSYWYG (What you see is what you get, onscreen). WASP (White Anglo-Saxon, Protestant)

Some are capitalised and we read them; OK, CD, ATV, SUV;

There are symbols such as Hg (mercury), km (kilometres, klicks), Mhz (Megahertz);

Wikipedia refers to a pseudo-blend AEGIS, the defence system is Airborne Early warning Ground environment Interface Segment, but this might also be false etymology; Wikipedia quotes a good example, UNIFEM is the UN development fund for Women; Gestapo is one GEheime STAatsPOlizei.

A backronym is when the phrase is specially constructed to work. Many of these are used as teaching tools, slogans and jokes. Wikipedia quotes several for Ford, from First on Race Day to Fix or Repair Daily. With that goes Fix It Again, Toni.

The Patriot Act (Wikipedia)

The official title of the USA PATRIOT Act, a 2001 Act of the U.S. Congress, is "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001".

The AA has two nice ones, slip and denial, (Sobriety Losing Its Priority and Don’t Even Notice I’m Lying)

A near backronym is grop (trail mix) - granola, oats, raisins, peanuts. While looking for grop in the dictionary I found groof, face down on your belly. Now I’d say grop was a genuine acronym, since grop is not in my dictionary and I’d say grop will be recognised soon. But then I don’t know that porg or prog aren’t better words for trail mix. Then neither do I have much idea what granola is.


Some TLAs

TIP = To Insure Promptness (not an FLA but a TLA, I know). Also to insure performance. Don’t you wish. The word occurs in the splendid play the Beau Stratagem (Farquahar, 1706, well worth enjoying). You’d be better giving the tip before expecting service; protection money.

TaB = Totally Artificial beverage.  Nope.

Cop = Constable on patrol. Nope.

GAY = Good As You  I think this is a true adaptation of the word from the (Gay) Rights Movement in the fifties. Used in 1938 and decades before that with the modern meaning. Gay picked up sexual connotations early (like 17th century, says Wikipedia). This article indicates a change from Gertrude Stein (1922)  and Bringing up Baby (1938) but not the Gay Falcon (1941). Wikipedia doesn’t credit the acronym version.

Cabal   the five ministers of Charles II. This has got to be a public school history mnemonic, surely. Snopes again:

During the reign of Charles II, who ruled in Great Britain and Ireland during the Restoration period (1660-85) after returning from nine years' exile in France, a small committee of the Privy Council, also known as the Committee for Foreign Affairs (the forerunner of the modern cabinet), had chief management of the course of government from 1667 to 1673. This council included the following five men: Thomas Clifford, 1st Baron of Chudleigh and lord treasurer; Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington and secretary of state; George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham; Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury and lord chancellor; and John Maitland, first Duke of Lauderdale and Charles's principal administrator in Scotland.

from cabala or qabbalah in Hebrew. Snopes points out that the history isn’t quite right either:

As well, an excerpt from a 1670 bit of Andrew Marvell's writing demonstrates that more than one "cabal" was said to exist within Charles' ministries, and these five men weren't then noted as all belonging to the same one:

The governing cabal are Buckingham, Lauderdale, Ashly, Orery, and Trevor. Not but the other cabal [Arlington, Clifford, and their party] too have seemingly sometimes their turn.

So we had Bloat [Buckingham, Lauderdale, Orery, Ashly and Trevor] and Cabal [Chudleigh, Arlington, Buckingham; Anthony Ashley (Cooper), and Lauderdale ]. I wanted to spell two of those as Orrery and Ashley.

CHAV = Council Housed and Violent. Not true, but that doesn’t stop it becoming so.


You want lots of acronyms? go here, www.acronymslist.com 40000 of them.

Many webpages say that there are no acronyms before WWII. Not true, but there are surprisingly few from before then.

Here’s one that I reckon has died. AFA = American Family Association 1912, used so that afa came to mean self-righteous ignorant twit. But also ain’t fuckin’ around, asking for attention and absolutely fuckin’ awesome from textspeak. Given that it is also the Amateur Football Association, the 1st meaning is unkind when they mis-organise something.

DJS 20140127

the snake’s tale6

Shortly after this, 20140303, I discovered that the Fahrenheit scale is not based upon 0 at the freezing point of seawater. See the straight dope: Fahrenheit more nearly picked an arbitrary zero so that he wouldn’t have negative numbers. The scaling did intend to refer to water freezing and blood heat but it wouldn’t even be true to say he aimed at body temperature being at a hundred. That does not affect later definitions of the scale and its units. Fahrenheit took zero to be the temperature of a mixture of brine and sal ammoniac (which is frigorific); he should have swapped brine for plain water - NH4Cl and H2O are frigorific at 0ºF). He then set water’s melt-point at 32 and blood heat at 96. He was following Rømer. The attraction of 64 units between the two target points allows for multiple halving - a version of a binary scale, indeed. The ‘romer’ on my compass is not named after Rømer, much as I might like it to be, but after British inventor Carrol Romer 1883-1951. Perhaps I should do a page on names (descriptive noun eponyms?)  - hoover [129], romer [above, 124], crapper [120], spoonerism [111] ...

1  Snopes.com is a good source for undoing this sort of thing, c/o (mostly) Barbara Mikkelson. http://www.snopes.com/language/acronyms/posh.asp#SKfUtzr8PFySrQ4W.99      She cites:

Konigsburg, E.L.   The View From Saturday. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1996.   ISBN 0-689-81721-5   (pp. 98, 126).

Lederer, Richard.   "On Language; Haunted Words." The New York Times.   3 September 1989.

Morris, Evan.   "The Word Detective." The Star-Ledger.   1 February 1998   (Perspective, p. 5).

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.   ISBN 0-19-861258-3.

2   S.O.D. = Shorter Oxford Dictionary, in two volumes ( the Complete Oxford is many volumes, like twenty).

   C.O.D. Concise Oxford Dictionary

3    Pear’s   Word-Puzzler’s Dictionary 1987 onwards  

4    M-W Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary  (Known to me as Miriam, I’m afraid)

I can’t find my dictionary of Slang.

5    radar  - RAdio Detection And Ranging

    laser   - Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

6    Snake’s tale - the tail of the (year of the) snake was the date above; the year of the horse began shortly thereafter. Since I’m 1953, the snake is my year, five twelve year cycles before 2013.

© David Scoins 2017