IT HAS OFTEN been said that NFL stands for No Fun League, though former Falcons coach Jerry Glanville said it was Not For Long, and Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett recently told ESPN it's an abbreviation of N----s For Lease. Retrofitting abbreviations and acronyms with new and often scurrilous definitions creates what some linguists call "backronyms." And so we might say that NCAA is short for Not Compensating Athletes Adequately, or that NBC these last few weeks was Nonstop Bob Costas—at least until the Olympics became a referendum on Ryan Lochte.
Like another aquatic acronym, SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), Lochte could easily be a military invention, an amphibious vehicle designed to cause international havoc: LOCHTE (Live Organism Comprising Hair Tint & Equivocations).
This reverse-engineering has been going on so long now that many backronyms have themselves become outdated. NASCAR was once unfairly derided as a Non-Athletic Sport Centered Around Rednecks. By the 21st century, like most other sports, it had come to mean something more prosaic: Neverending Ads, Sponsorships, Commercials (And Racing).
Almost all backronyms are unflattering—that's the whole point of them, as illustrated by the childhood classics about Ford (Fix Or Repair Daily), Delta (Doesn't Ever Leave The Airport) and USC (University of Spoiled Children). Anyone raised near the Minneapolis suburb of Edina knew that it stood for Every Day I Need Attention. Ask any dad who enjoys cycling on the weekends if he has been called a MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man in Lycra).
Even when they're benign, they aren't necessarily fair or factual. So the Bills have long been caricatured as Boy, I Love Losing Superbowls. (They don't.) The Cubs historically have been derided as Completely Useless By September. (Not this year.) See if you can guess who this is: Losing Is Our Natural State. More often than not, acronyms beget acrimony.
And once seen, they are hard to un-see. When we learned last year that the top American official of soccer's world governing body had pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and was revealed to have kept an apartment at Trump Tower for the exclusive use of his cats, FIFA came to stand—at least to me—for Feline Indulgence on Fifth Avenue. (There's also a Fertiliser Industry Federation of Australia, giving us two FIFAs dedicated to the spreading of bull----.)
With the exception of the military, which gave us SNAFU and FUBAR and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, among countless other profane constructions, no profession is quite so alphabet-souped as sports are. By the time you're reading SI, you've cracked a kind of Enigma code. There are stats (WHIP, BABIP), networks (NESN, MASN), conferences (ACC, AAC) and scoreboard shorthand (CWS vs. LAA) that we all decipher as a matter of reflex. You know every body part—ACL, MCL, UCL—that could possibly put a QB or an LHP on the DL, the IR or the PUP list. If someone GIDPs with RISP in the ALCS, you know exactly what happened. If PATs were on the SAT, we'd all be Rhodes scholars.
Thanks to texting shorthand, we've never been so adept at working out what those letters—IMHO, ICYMI, FWIW—stand for. This is not good news for everyone. The World Taekwondo Federation cannot be thrilled that its abbreviation has come to mean something else entirely in the Internet age. No one would be ROFL-ing at the WTF if they'd emulated the founders of BASS (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) or AWSM (Association for Women in Sports Media) and created an acronym that was BOSS (Boulder Outdoor Survival School) or RAD (Royal Academy of Dance).
There's a downside to all these acronyms. Scientists say that texting may be rewiring our brains to value speed over accuracy. When Muhammad Ali's life is summed up as the GOAT and most online eulogies are reduced to RIP, and news stories routinely refer to our highest-ranking officials as POTUS and FLOTUS and SCOTUS, it helps to remember that brevity is not always the soul of wit, but often the last bastion of the meathead. Golf is not an acronym of Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden. And FBI is not what it claims to be on that T-shirt they sell at the beach.
We've never been so adept at figuring out what acronyms stand for. This is not good news for everyone—just ask the World Taekwondo Federation.
What acronyms are missing from the sports lexicon?
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