Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP

By Irving Lewis Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
ACRIMONIOUS ACRONYMS

MANY DEROGATORY NICKNAMES for ethnic groups, both minority and majority, are various kinds of word play, such as puns, Pig Latin, blends, alterations, clippings, reduplications, and other devices. The acronym (for example SAM, for Southern Appalachian Migrant in the industrial cities of Ohio) and its cousin, the initialism (as in P. R., for Puerto Rican), are among the newest devices for forming nicknames for ethnic groups in the slang of North American English. I have found a score of these terms for American ethnic groups. Almost all now appear in the Acronyms, Initialisms, and Abbreviations Dictionary, the major listing of these terms in American usage.

H. L. Mencken once noted the American inclination for "reducing complex concepts to starkest abbreviations." The word acronym first appeared in dictionaries in the 1940s and derives from the transliterated Greek akros for tip and onyma for name. Thus, acronyms are formed from the "tips" or initial letters of a name.

Acronyms, while an old device, became famous as names of the "alphabet soup" agencies of the New Deal and from military use in the Second World War. Organizations, industrial processes, and many other things are now named so

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