Hot Tips


It started like this: Acrophobia is fear of heights. Acrobats do things high up, so those are clearly related, but then WTF is “bat”? And then, WTF does an acronym have to do with heights? And then the next word that started with “acro” that I could think of was, oddly, “acrostic,” but that’s the lame poem where words or phrases go across the page from letters of some other word, the most boring, obvious etymology ever, so never mind that, right?

The answers to these questions need to be on a public service announcement, if you ask me. It’s one of those etymological wonders that once I learn it, I can’t believe we don’t all talk about all the time.

If it were me, I’d have featured “acrobat,” “acropolis,” and “acrophony” in this long list, but it seems 1934 Websters just wants us to focus on bodily extremities. Enjoy!

It’s not so much “heights” as it is “extrem(iti)es”! Tips. (“Heights” then being a subset of “tips”–the top-tips). So yes, an acrobat does things high up, and “bat” comes from Greek bainein “walk, go” and so I have my answer to that. Great! And then I looked for “acronym” and I couldn’t find it. Because you know what? Acronym wasn’t coined until 1943! So of course 1934 Websters Int’l has never heard of it. And it’s apparently a whole dang thing: the Online Etymology Dictionary takes a bit of a tone about the subtleties between acronyms and initialisms (roughly: if you can pronounce it like a word [NATO] it’s an acronym, if you can’t [FBI] it’s an initialism, but no one knows or uses the difference because we’re all fools), and also is mad about emails that pretend words like “shit” have secret acronymic histories. So! “acronym” looks like a nice old word because it borrows that -nym, but it’s actually pretty new and strangely controversial.

You know what isn’t new? Or just a form of super easy poetry that 2nd graders learn and are delighted by? Acrostics! That shit is from 1580.


Do you SEE? Kids learn this–I learned this–as connected to the notion of “across”–because words or phrases so palpably proceed across the sheet of construction paper from the letters of your name, or whatever. BUT IT’S NOT ABOUT ACROSS! It’s about the tips–the tips of the lines forming some word, not the lines marching across from the letters of that word. I love this so much. I also love that the definition right below says the total opposite thing, catching us all in the act of using the sounds of a word to repurpose it for our own ends.* Good for us! Also, funnily enough, “acrostic” here seems to kind of actually mean “acronym”–right? Or rather, an acronym (as we use it) would be a species of acrostic (used in the original sense).  It mentions “cabal”; “cabal” comes from Latin cabbala (mystical lore, tradition) and then it just so happened that in 1673 you could use it to stand in for “five intriguing ministers of Charles II” (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale), so then it started meaning “sinister group.” This is referred to as an acrostic in 1934 and an acronym now. It all makes my brain come out of my ears and jump up and down, because now, instead of thinking of something like “fornication under consent of the ¨king” as a bullshit acronym, I can delightedly think of it as an acrostic, from 15MFing80, and bask in that warm grandiose love of ostentatious words.

Finally, I am not sure how precisely this connects, and I don’t care, and neither will you:


*ba dum CHHH!

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