What’s In A Name? – Sharks, Seals, Penguins and Laser Beams
Laser. It’s a brilliant word, isn’t it? Laser. It’s sinister, menacing and cool all at the same time. It’s almost onomatopoeic, which is a posh way of saying “does what it says on the tin”. It sounds like something that can punch a hole in a steel plate in a microsecond. It sounds like something James Bond would find himself trying to escape from before it vaporizes his wedding tackle while he’s strapped to a solid gold table. For my money, it’s the coolest word to come out of the 20th Century.
Back in the 20th Century though, the word “Laser” wouldn’t have been written as it is now. It would have been written like this : L.A.S.E.R. This is because Laser is an acronym. The individual letters stand for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. A bit of a disappointing derivation for such a cool word. Unless you happen to be really into physics of course, in which case it’s awesome.
There’s a great deal of crap talked about acronyms. The obvious main offender is the contention that the word “fuck” stands for “Fornication Under Consent of the King” and is a hangover from the days of Merry Olde England. This is definitely not true. There are two reasons I know this. The first reason is that I looked the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the OED clearly states the “fuck” is of 16th Century Germanic origin. The second reason is that acronyms are a fairly recent invention, their roots being in secret projects during World War Two. The word “acronym” itself didn’t make it into the OED until the 1950’s.
People love making up acronyms and they don’t seem to mind how much they torture the English language to do it. There’s a scene in an episode of “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” where one of the characters says “We are the Strategic Homeland Intervention and Logistics Division. What does that mean to you?” and the other character replies “Sounds like it means someone really wanted our initials to spell out SHIELD.”
The US Navy has a special forces role called a Navy SEAL. This is a tortured acronym, standing for “SEa Air Land”, though it’s no more tortured than one of the original acronyms RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging). I’ve always thought SEAL was a bit of an odd choice. Why name your elite special forces after an animal that is graceful in the water but comically clumsy on dry land? An animal which can easily be placated by throwing it a fish or getting it to balance a beach ball on its nose? It makes no sense. It’s like the SAS suddenly deciding to call themselves P.E.N.G.U.I.N.S. (I’ve no idea what P.E.N.G.U.I.N.S. might stand for. Feel free to make something up yourself if you want.)
The most disappointing acronym of all has to be COBRA. When something really urgent needs to be discussed by the British Government, when the safety of the realm is under threat, they hold a COBRA meeting. COBRA. That’s almost as good as LASER. It conjures up images of bomb proof bunkers and ministers abseiling into the meeting on ropes hanging from the ceiling. In fact, it’s just the name of the room the meetings are usually held in : Cabinet Office Briefing Room “A”. Which just goes to show how easy it is to make something mundane sound really exciting. There’s an entire industry built around that principle. It’s called “Advertising “.
I think The Government should liven things up a bit in its COBRA meetings. Maybe the ministers should strap David Cameron to one of the oak tables and aim a Laser beam in the vicinity of his nackers until he finally gives them a straight answer about something. Doesn’t matter what about. Any old straight answer will do. I’d throw a few extra pennies in tax revenue at the Exchequer to make that happen. Show the Prime Minister the meaning of the word P.A.I.N. ( It stands for Painful And Incinerated Nackers, if you must know.) And yes, I’m aware that it’s a bit of a tautology to make “Painful” part of the acronym “P.A.I.N”. I’m also aware that it was a bit of a stretch to leave the “k” of the front of the word “knackers” earlier in this post, in order to crowbar it into an acronym.
You can’t get me on that last point though, I’m afraid. There’s a viable historic precedent. During World War Two, British soldiers used to write letters home to their wives and sweethearts. On the backs of the envelopes, they would often write the word N.O.R.W.I.C.H. This stands for “Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home.” As I’m sure you’re aware, “Knickers” is spelt with a “k” at the beginning. Sometimes you just have to employ a bit of artistic license, as demonstrated by Allan Bennet in his classic “Telegram” sketch. Enjoy!
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2014