ICYMI, UB40, REI, 3M and WWF, what do all those letters and numbers stand for?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Ever wonder what those numbers and letters in a brand name stand for? 

From KFC to UPS, we are inundated with names – or pieces of names – of companies. So many in fact that we barely notice them.

I lived in China for about a year many years ago. A popular place to eat was the new KFC in the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing.

I asked one of my students if he knew what KFC stood for. I did not imagine that he knew anything of  the “Kentucky” origins of the initials, but I also did not anticipate his answer.

He looked at me, perplexed and perhaps a bit annoyed. “It doesn’t stand for anything – KFC is the name.”

I guess his answer made sense. Especially in China, why would a full name have any meaning at all?

Most American young people – maybe even young people from Kentucky would probably agree. Why would a brand need – or want a longer name? KFC is just fine by itself; as is UPS, 7-11, REI and a hundred others.

But in the unlikely event that you are curious about where those initial/ number names come from, here is a short list of fifty of the most common – http://mentalfloss.com/article/538094/acronyms-and-initialisms-spelled-out. WD-40 is not on the list. You’ll have to research that one on your own.

Photo by Morf Morford
Photo by Morf Morford

There are other categories of letter and number combinations that can puzzle newcomers to them.

Our government is notorious for its ‘alphabet soup” approach to agencies and programs. FDIC, FEMA, FCC, FHA and OSHA are only a few of the acronyms that float across memos and conversations regarding compliance and contractual obligations.

In those barbaric days before the internet, one had to ask someone what those terms might mean – and you learned quickly not to ask twice.

You were just supposed to know those things.

A set of acronyms that used to be fairly esoteric has recently become commonplace, at least in print media.You’ve probably seen SCOTUS (Supreme Court Of The United States), POTUS (President Of The United States) or FLOTUS (First Lady Of The United States) in a magazine or newspaper article. I’d guess that SCOTUS and FLOTUS were Secret Service code names until they somehow became public information.  (1*)

The military has developed a vast array of useful acronyms. Many have become  appropriated by civilians and have become words – instead of acronyms – commonly used by those who know nothing of their origins – or even their original meanings.

If you are from a military family, or live in a community largely influenced by the military, you have almost certainly heard, and may even use, terms like FUBAR (Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition or F#%&ed Up Beyond All Repair) or SNAFU (Situation Normal: All F&%#ed/ Fouled Up).

There are also many acronyms that are so familiar that we consider them to be words – not acronyms. This would be words like sonar, laser, radar and even the word radio. Yes, those were all originally military terms.

For whatever reason, especially for those acronyms that emerged from World War II, most military acronyms were five letters.

The formula was fairly simple; start with a machine, tool or despised person (usually a nitwit in authority) add a vowel and an “F” or two, and viola! you have a new word that sums up both any given situation and the inherent blasé attitude of someone just trying to make it through one more day.

Since then, most military acronyms have become shorter – though a few have become longer. USA PATRIOT Act, for example is an acronym representing the  “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.”

Sometimes a simple set of letters can have unexpected meanings. In modern American English, you can't be too careful.  Photo: Morf Morford
Sometimes a simple set of letters can have unexpected meanings. In modern American English, you can’t be too careful. Photo: Morf Morford

Some are cynical. How about this military inspired term? – PAPERCLIP (People Against People Ever Reenlisting Civilian Life Is Preferred).

Some terms have more than one meaning – POW, depending on the context might mean Plan of the Week or Prisoner of War.

APO stands for Army Post Office. GPS has become a word (or term) unto itself.

Navy SEALS stands for Sea, Air, Land, and USS  (as in the name of a ship) stands for United States Ship.

In my family a common term is ETA  (Estimated Time of Arrival).

How many of us use a term like FYI (For Your Information) or KISS  (Keep It Simple, Stupid) or ASAP?

You might have thought that texting gave us a whole new vocabulary – and in a way it did – only digital natives would come up with a term like IRL (In Real Life) or F2F (Face to Face). And only young people, feeling confined by their parents would come up with terms like  PAW (Parents are Watching) PIR (Parent in Room) or POS (Parent over Shoulder).  (2*)

LOL can mean Laugh Out Loud or Lots Of Love. Make sure your reader knows which one you intend.

Acronyms I have seen in print a lot lately are FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and ICYMI (In Case You Missed It).

Some terms seem to have a limited shelf-life, YOLO  (You Only Live Once) seems to have disappeared while others like BOGO (Buy One, Get One) seem to be omnipresent on storefronts and print ads.

I’ve taught English and ESL (English as Second Language) for many years. My focus was on grammar, spelling and proper usage.

I never imagined that my own native language would disintegrate into a scramble of letters, numbers, symbols, icons and emojis.

A basic principle of a living language is that it is always changing. Our language is changing, perhaps thanks to technology and social media, far faster than any before in human history.

Just as American English is very different from British English (and those poor Canadians are stuck in the middle) and grandparents and grandchildren can barely understand each other, our language in the twenty-teens (is that what we call our era?) probably would not make sense to those of previous generations. I only hope it makes sense to those who look back on us a generation or two from now.

Many language scholars nominate English as the most difficult language to learn, and I would have to agree.

We only have 26 letters in our alphabet (unlike Mandarin, for example, with thousands of characters) but we muddle, mix and mangle and invert meanings to make a new word we may use for a week or two – or some special event – or it may find its place in our language and be in use, however reluctantly, (or grammatically awkward) for decades or longer.

You may not need to ever use many of these terms, but I am convinced that you should, at the very least, know what they mean when you do see them.


(1*)    VPOTUS does not seem to have caught on like the others.

(2*)    POS can also stand for Point of Sale or Piece of S##t. Context is everything.

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