file under carnal knowledge

August 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

You may have heard the explanations of the terms fuck and posh  not their meanings … I assumed you looked those up the first time you got your hands on a dictionary. I’m talking about proposals that these words are acronyms. For example,  file/found/fornication under carnal knowledge  for the first, and portside out starboard home for the second are often argued to be the sources. The second refers to the shadier cabins that the elite British would take on board ships bound for India during the Raj.

Neither of these are accurate. Fuck is a bog-standard Germanic word with origins deep in the past of our and related languages. Posh is a little harder to get to grips with. The Raj theory falls down in that the first printed reference appears as late as 1935. … the Raj had been going since Victorian times. Alternatively, the Merriam Webster dictionary cites more possible sources, university slang and the usage of a homophonous term as a noun meaning dandy.

So what we are dealing with here, are false etymologies, or folk etymologies, assuming an acronym origin where none exists. Some wit came up with the term backronym/bacronym for this. Perhaps the finest example of this is the Agpar score, a system designed by Virgina Agpar to assess the health newborn babies. Some time later, her family name was made into an acronym for some of the features of the score, Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity Respiration, making a name a useful memory tool.

Bacronyms also appear in particularly cruel humour. I remember two examples from my own growing up. Jokes that went around after the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up killing all crew, included: What does NASA stand for Need Another Seven Astronauts …. and during the early period of the AIDs era. What does gay stand for Got Aids Yet? Appalling.


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