Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Acronyms’ Category

Boy Scout Backformation

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2010

Adam is going into his fourth year of Cub Scouts, which means he is now considered a Webelos Scout. Webelos is a name that is supposed to sound kind of like a Native American name, but one which fortunately contains only English phonemes and obeys English phonotactic rules. And, unlike most Native American words, it’s an acronym. (At least, I haven’t heard of acronym formation in Native American languages, but if someone knows better, please correct me. Maybe Ryan does.) I’ve learned that Webelos originally stood for “Wolf, Bear, Lion, Scout,” with Wolf, Bear, and Lion being the three age-graded ranks of Cub Scouts, but what is lion doing in a faux Native American acronym? Well, it’s like this (if you can believe the current Wikipedia entry): The Cub Scout program in the United States was a melding of a British model, which used Kipling’s The Jungle Book as an underpinning for names of ranks and other things, and a United States model, which went with Native American.

A logo with appeal! Get it? A p- ... oh, never mind.

However, by the time I was old enough to be a Cub Scout — I wasn’t one, but there was a time when I was old enough to be one — the Lion rank had disappeared, which undermined the basis for the acronym. So it’s not too surprising that the acronym had been regrounded by the time my classmates Peter Hannon, John Wickland, and Doug Stewart became Webelos Scouts. I learned from them that Webelos stood for “We Be Loyal Scouts.” I wondered a bit at the nonstandard grammar We be, but wasn’t curious enough to pursue it. Another question I didn’t pursue was why out of all the 12 characteristics mentioned in the Boy Scout Law, it was #2 on the list, loyalty that got put into the Webelos name. Yet another: Why the logo on their caps that looked like a half-peeled banana. (Looking at it now, I see that it’s a clever mashup of the Boy Scouts’ fleur-de-lis and a letter W.)

Sometime in the past 30 years, though, the acronymic basis for Webelos was tweaked a little to be the more standard “We’ll Be Loyal Scouts.” When I read that in Adam’s Tiger manual three years ago, I figured I must have mis-heard or misremembered what Peter, Doug, and John had been saying, or that perhaps they had mis-heard it when they learned it, but when the topic came up on the American Dialect Society email list last year, Arnold Zwicky mentioned that it had been “We Be Loyal Scouts” when he was in Cub Scouts.

As I’ve heard adult leaders in Adam’s Cub Scout pack talk about Webelos Scouts, I’ve noticed the near-universal (in this population) syncope of the unstressed medial syllable, such that it’s pronounced ['wibloʊːz] instead of ['wibəloʊːz]. Sometimes it’s even spelled “Weblos”. As I’ve thought about the acronym more, I’ve noted that whereas the initial s in Scouts is pronounced [s], the s at the end of Webelos is pronounced [z]. On the one hand, that’s not unusual: It’s a well-studied rule that in English, /s/ after a vowel is often voiced and turned into [z]. But on the other hand, this is not just a phonemic rule, i.e. one that always happens to /s/ after a vowel. If it were, we wouldn’t have words like piss, gas, mess, and pus. It’s a morpho-phonemic rule, meaning that the phonetic alternation happens only when this /s/ is a morpheme, that is, when it carries a meaning. Specifically, it only happens when the /s/ is the -s suffix for plural nouns or third-person singular present-tense verbs. So pronouncing Webelos with a [z] a the end, as the Webelos Handbook instructs, is just asking — begging! — for a backformation to occur. It’s practically forcing the listener to parse it as a plural noun, Webelo-s, and to conclude that there is such a thing as a singular noun Webelo.

And in fact, everyone associated with Adam’s Cub Scout pack does this. As they would say, “Adam is a Webelo.” They even use the backformed singular in compound nouns, as in “We have two Webelo dens,” or “Did you bring your Webelo handbook?” I’m sure I’ve done it myself, too.


I looked in the manual to see if its writers ever used the backformed Webelo, and as far as I can see, they have been very careful. On the cover it says “Webelos Handbook”, and inside it talks consistently about “Webelos Scouts”. Most tellingly, it even asks on page 4, “What is a Webelos Scout?” — singular Scout, plural-looking Webelos. A little searching through Google Books brings up this official-sounding statement from page 6 of the October 1996 issue of Scouting magazine, in an editorial response to a reader who asks if it’s correct to way “Webelo scout”:

Well, I’ve got some bad news for the BSA. People have been saying Webelo since at least 1961. For there to have been even a chance of speakers not inventing Webelo somewhere along the way, they should have been taking pains to have people pronounce it with an [s] at the end: ['wibəloʊs]. It would have sounded like a word borrowed from Greek, like ethos, pathos, cosmos, or kudos. Even that would have been no guarantee. Just look at what happened to kudos. It refers to something (praise) that can easily be perceived as a collection of things (individual compliments), and that semantic pull was enough to turn the [kʰuɾoʊs] pronunciation into [kʰuɾoʊːz], and now you can even hear people talking about “a kudo“. In fact, there’s even some confusion with cosmos. But back to what I was saying: If backformation created kudo even when singular kudos required a change in pronunciation to allow this to happen, what hope did already-plural-sounding Webelos ever have?

Posted in Acronyms, Backformation | 15 Comments »

FCCU!

Posted by Neal on April 3, 2005

Heidi Harley of HeiDeas has piqued my interest in acronyms again. Poking around on her website, I found this paper about acronyms. (Q-Pheevr of A Roguish Chrestomathy found it, too, last August, and blogged about it here.) In this paper, Harley tries to answer the question of why, for example, why the Central Intelligence Agency is referred to as the CIA (not as just *CIA), while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is referred to as NASA (never *the NASA). She finds a pattern based on whether the acronym is pronounced like an ordinary word (e.g., NASA), or spelled out (e.g., CIA). She reserves the term acronym for the former, and abbreviation for the latter, and shows that acronyms formed from names beginning with the just about always lose it, as in the NASA/*the NASA example. On the other hand, abbreviations formed from names beginning with the usually keep it (though the pattern is not as strong as that seen for acronyms).

A few days after I’d read the paper, a couple of exceptions occurred to me. First of all, there’s the O.C.. For the longest time after the show of the same name starting running, I didn’t know what the abbreviation stood for, but eventually I figured out that it stood for Orange County. Even then, though, I was uneasy about my conclusion. The fully pronounced name was Orange County, not *the Orange County, so how did the the get into the abbreviation? (I guess this isn’t an exception to Harley’s claim after all, now that I think about it: She addresses only the names that actually do start with the, and what happens to it when the name is abbreviated.)

The second exception came from my dad’s stories from his days at a Gulf Coast refinery before I was born. One of the buildings there housed the fluidized catalytic cracking unit, or FCCU. FCCU wasn’t an abbreviation; it was definitely a true acronym, that Dad and his buddies had lots of fun pronouncing. And, contrary to Harley’s generalization, it kept the the. They referred to this piece of equipment as the FCCU. And when another one was installed, they called it the FCCU 2!

Posted in Acronyms | 7 Comments »

Double Portmanteaus and Stacked Acronyms

Posted by Neal on December 7, 2004

Justin Busch at Semantic Compositions discusses the newly coined word vog, which refers to a kind of smog currently being pumped out by Mt. Saint Helens. Vog is an example of what’s sometimes called a portmanteau word, in which parts of two words, in this case volcano and smog, are blended to create a new one. But wait a minute! Busch quite reasonably objects. Smog itself is a portmanteau word, formed from smoke and fog. When you amputate the sm-, you’re not just shortening the word, you’re losing essential information about its meaning! Or, as he puts it,

[It] raises the question of how many times you can iterate this sort of process before the derivation becomes hopelessly opaque.

His friend Radagast, however, makes a good point in a comment:

[C]oining the … word vog allows residents/ volcanologists of the region to specifically describe a condition familiar to them in a single, short word that they can all understand.
And does it really matter if the derivation is “hopelessly opaque,” as long as people know what you mean when you say the word?

In other words, who ever said that the derivation of a word had to be transparent? That smog can be truncated this way and become part of a double portmanteau (as one commentator was inspired to call it) just goes to show that smog has been around long enough to be accepted as an ordinary word without any special status attached to its internal structure.

I guess Busch’s and my problem (if I may presume to read his mind) is that we can’t let go of the past. For us, sm- still stands for smoke, -og still stands for fog, and smog can only retain its meaning when both those elements are present. In other words, smog is more like a phrase than a word: Just as I like traffic cannot mean the same thing as I like traffic lights, so -og cannot mean the same thing as smog.

This is reminding me of something. Oh, yes! Those stacked acronyms I talked about a while back, the main example being ACT-UP, where the A stands for AIDS. Here’s a more recently collected example:

LIGO = Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory

But laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, so what does the L in LIGO really stand for? (And incidentally, why does wave get left out in the cold?) Another example:

DELPH-IN = Deep Linguistic Processing with HPSG Initiative

But HPSG is an acronym for Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar. So does the H stand for HPSG, or for head-driven-phrase-structure-grammar?

The problem again is that I’m thinking of acronyms as more like phrases than words. Take away part of a phrase and you have a different meaning; therefore, I want to say, take away part of an acronym, and you have a different meaning. Take -aser away from laser, or PSG from HPSG, and the remaining l- and H- don’t mean “laser” and “HPSG,” but just “light” and “head.” And come to think of it, I am getting a little light-headed from thinking about all this. I’ve just gotta let go of the past, and set the acronyms free, free to achieve their destiny as words.

Posted in Acronyms, Portmanteau words | 4 Comments »

Acronym Stacking

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2004

In my posting on almost-recursive acronyms, I noted that the company Cygnus, whose name expands to “Cygnus, Your GNU Support,” was not guilty of what I referred to as acronym stacking. This is the name I give to an acronym including a letter that abbreviates a different acronym; as I like to think of it, the first acronym is stacked on top of the second one. The first stacked acronym to catch my attention was the name of an issue-oriented political group called ACT-UP, an acronym for “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.” Aside from the awkwardness of the phrase unleash power for the sake of having a meaningful acronym, my complaint was that you couldn’t tell what the A stood for. Yes, it stood for AIDS, but the A in AIDS stands for acquired. Shouldn’t this group more properly be known as AIDSCT-UP?
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Almost-Recursive Acronyms

Posted by Neal on June 23, 2004

There’ve been a number of posts about acronyms recently on some of the blogs I read. One was from me, one from Glen, and one from the guy at Semantic Compositions. This last one reminded me of a letter to the editor I wrote some 15 years ago. The post is about recursive acronyms, the cited example being GNU, which expands to “GNU’s not Unix.” One of the letters in a recursive acronym (theoretically any one of them, but always the first one in the examples I’ve seen) stands for the acronym itself, leading to an infinite loop when one tries to expand out the acronym. As I read the post, I thought back to my freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin… ah, yes… I remember it as if it were a segment on Letterman…
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Machine Machines and Number Numbers

Posted by Neal on June 19, 2004

I wonder what you’d call a machine whose function was to make automatic teller machines (ATMs). Would it be called an ATM machine? Well, no, of course not, since ATM machine means the same thing as plain old ATM: If you see a sign saying “ATM machine inside” when you enter a grocery store, you will find an ordinary ATM, and you won’t find some other kind of machine that has something to do with ATMs.

This kind of redundancy also occurs with acronyms whose final N stands for number.
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Posted in Acronyms, You're so literal! | 4 Comments »

 
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