Lots of “fun facts” aren’t very factual. One of the classics that gets wheeled out every so often is that some word is actually an old acronym. In almost all cases, it’s not true—and we’ll see why in a moment.
But first, a few examples. One of the more popular claims is that the word “posh” comes from wealthy English people sailing out to India in a cabin on the port (left) side of the boat and back in a cabin on the starboard (right) side because of better sunlight or some such reason, thus Port Out Starboard Home—posh. Sadly, it’s total nonsense. It’s likely a loan word from either Romany or Persian.
Golf has a similarly spurious fake etymology. It’s occasionally claimed that the letters stand for Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden. Again, it’s just not the case. The modern game originated in Scotland in the 1400s, and the name is likely derived from the Scots Gaelic word “goulf,” which means to strike or cuff, which itself is possibly derived from the Dutch word “kolf” for a bat or club, and another stick and ball sport.
And one final example that’s not quite as well known. Some people claim cop, as slang for a police officer, comes from Constable On Patrol. It’s not (and nor does it come from New York police officers wearing copper badges). The verb “cop” is an old Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to catch or grab. Thus a “copper” was someone who caught people. In the 1800s, the word “copper” was derogatory when used this way, and it was made illegal to use it to police officers. However, things have softened a little, and “copper” is still slang for an officer of the law.
So how can we state with such certainty that none of these words are acronyms, especially when we don’t know for sure what their true etymologies are? That’s where things get interesting.
Initialisms (abbreviations consisting of the initial letters that you pronounce separately) have been around for thousands of years. For example, the Roman Empire’s official name—Senatus Populusque Romanus—was frequently abbreviated as SPQR. For a more modern example, think FBI or CIA.
Acronyms are a form of initialism that are meant to be spoken as full words. Think NASA or ASAP. And acronyms are much newer, mostly dating to the 1900s.
The word acronym itself first appeared in English in the 1940s (formed from the Greek words “akros” for topmost and “onoma” for name), and it was around this time that they were coming into their own. World War Two was responsible for many, starting the connection between acronyms and the military early on, with examples like RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging), SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fouled Up), AWOL (Absent WithOut Leave), and PLUTO (PipeLine Under The Ocean). Even G.I. (General Infantry) is an acronym.
Since then, thousands of acronyms, like SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), GIF (Graphical Image Format), and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), have entered common parlance, and tens of thousands more are an accepted part of English. But they’re all modern words, not words like posh or golf that have been around for hundreds of years.
And there you have it. Acronyms pronounced as words are a Twentieth and Twenty-First Century conceit so, unless there are some undiscovered examples out there, no word that’s been around for a couple of centuries is derived from one.