When news emerged that Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin was renouncing his American citizenship to avoid taxes related to Facebook's IPO, two senators reacted by proposing legislation that would go after the likes of Saverin. Senators Chuck Schumer and Bob Casey said it was time to "defriend" Saverin, and they announced a bill called the Expatriation Prevention by Abolishing Tax-Related Incentives for Offshore Tenancy Act, or the Ex-PATRIOT Act for short.
When it comes to naming legislation, members of Congress and their staffs all too often turn to prefabricated acronyms, otherwise known as "backronyms." The Ex-PATRIOT Act is just the latest example, and it's a doozy. It plays on the word expatriate and its similarity to ex-patriot, while at the same time evoking the granddaddy of belabored backronyms, the post-9/11 USA PATRIOT Act. That, you will recall, expands to the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.
Acronymic names for legislation are not particularly new, though there was a time when it didn't matter too much what the acronym spelled. When you receive COBRA health insurance coverage after leaving a job, you should thank the drafters of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. Apparently, no one was too concerned that the initials of that law spelled out the name of a venomous snake. But then we got the Health Omnibus Programs Extension (HOPE) Act of 1988, and the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act of 1990. Legislators started tinkering more and more with reverse-engineering acronyms to spell out something relevant, with the hopes of "branding" bills and making them more memorable.
The success of the USA PATRIOT Act truly raised the bar, leading to something of a backronym boom on Capitol Hill. As The Hill reported in 2005, coming up with a title like the Service Act for Care and Relief Initiatives for Forces Injured in Combat Engagements (SACRIFICE) Act can involve a great deal of work — hours or even days of brainstorming by staffers. But a catchy name can be rewarded politically, and the lack of one can be a detriment. Just ask President Obama, who ended up embracing the once-pejorative label "Obamacare" when the legislation's real name, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, never stuck. "PPACA," even if you pronounce it to rhyme with "alpaca," just doesn't trip off the tongue. (See my Boston Globe column for more on how "Obamacare" is being reclaimed by the president and his supporters.)
Not everybody's a fan of backronymic legislative names, no matter how cleverly contrived. Robert Lane Greene griped in The Economist's Johnson blog last year, "If I were in Congress I'd sponsor a Prohibiting Naming Laws With Cute Titles Act, or the PNLWCT Act, avoiding initial vowels just to make sure that it's unpronounceable."
For your delectation, here's a selection of some of the more impressive legislative backronyms, culled from a list managed by the Internet Accuracy Project.
[Update, 5/19: For more on governmental backronyms, see Micah Cohen's post on the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog.]
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer