Tip #614: Backronyms

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” Maya Angelou

I wanted what I thought was an acronym that would make the six steps in my Laurel Lesson Design process easier to remember. So I began with the word LESSON and came up with meanings for each letter:

L ook into the learning needs

E stablish the learning goals

S elect the learning objectives

S et the agenda for the learning program

O utline the learning activities

N ote how to evaluate if the learning needs are met

However, without knowing it, I was actually creating a “backronym,” not an acronym.

An acronym is created by using the first letters of the words of a phrase.

Some well-known examples include: AKA (Also Known As), DBA (Doing Business As), CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), NFL (National Football League), FYI (For Your Information), SWF (Single White Female), and LOL (Laughing Out Loud).

A “backronym” is essentially a reverse acronym. It is an acronym that is designed to fit an existing word.

It can be used for educational purposes to form mnemonics (my LESSON example).

Backronyms are also used as: teaching tools, slogans, or a way to make a subject’s purpose obvious.

Backronyms are additionally used to name laws or programs.

For example:

USA PATRIOT Act. This stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. In this case, as is often the case, the backronym saves a mouthful of words!

The APGAR Score. Apgar was the name of the obstetrical anesthesiologist who began testing newborns one minute and five minutes after birth to determine if they needed immediate care. Ten years later, the medical community created a backronym to help them remember the criteria scored during the test: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration.

AMBER Alert. AMBER originally referred to Amber Hageman, a 9-year-old who was abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996. However, the US Department of Justice now has AMBER stand for: America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

While those examples are very serious, backronyms can also be created for a more lighthearted reason.

For example, NASA apparently named its ISS treadmill the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT) after Stephen Colbert. This was a compromise after the comedian swayed NASA’s online vote for the naming of an ISS module.

Just as with acronyms, backronyms can be interpreted to mean something positive by supporters or something negative by detractors. For example, depending on your experience with FORD, you may say it stands for “First On Race Day” or “Fix Or Repair Daily!”

Trainers often design backronyms to help participants remember key concepts. We begin with a word and work backward.

Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller in their book, The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do, explain that great leaders SERVE:

See and shape the future

Engage and develop others

Reinvent continuously

Value results and relationships

Embody the values

Debra Schmidt in her book, Building Customer Loyalty from the Insider Out, points out that customer complaints offer an opportunity to LEARN how customer service representatives can do a better job:

Listen carefully to what your customer is telling you.

Empathize with your customer.

Apologize even if it was not your fault.

Resolve the problem.

Now is the time to correct the problem.

Do you have favorite backronyms that you use?

May your learning be sweet.


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