Initialistic avoidance

Reported by Eric Kleefeld on TPM LiveWire on December 9:

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) appeared on Hardball this evening, and dispensed some of his signature wit against the Republicans: Telling former Vice President Dick Cheney to “STFU,” …

Here’s an exchange between Grayson and Hardball‘s Chris Matthews:

Grayson: I don’t know. You know, on the Internet there’s an acronym that’s used to apply to situations like this. It’s called “STFU.” I don’t think I can say that on the air, but I think you know what that means.

Matthews: Well, give me the first part.

Grayson: “Shut.”

Matthews: Oh! I got you. Stop talking, in crude language. Well, I don’t think you’re gonna get him to do that.

The initialism “STFU” here avoids saying fuck on the air. But the initialism gets by.

(The third edition of Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word has an entry for STFU, with cites from 1991 on.)

(Hat tip to Victor Steinbok.)

Language Log has recently looked at initialistic avoidance in “WTF”. Ben Zimmer noted that it was inherently ambiguous, standing for expressions with various question words in the first slot. And observed that the Wisconsin Tourism Federation changed its name to Tourism Federation of Wisconsin, to avoid the associations of “WTF”. And then Mark Liberman caught a second-level avoidance, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”, and observed that the New York Times seems to avoid the initialism in print: only one occurrence of the initialism in the archives since 1981, and that one was unpacked as “why the face”.

The F Word lists a number of other initialisms, among them ASAFP (“as soon as fucking possible”), HMFIC (“head mother-fucker in charge”), IHTFP (“I hate this fucking place”), and of course FTx for various x‘s (“fuck the x“).

4 Responses to “Initialistic avoidance”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    I guess the best known are snafu, fubar, and RTFM.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To mollymooly: snafu and fubar are textbook acronyms, while RTFM is an initialism — both abbreviations, but of different types.

    More important, there’s something here about blogging that I’ve never been able to cope with: if I cite some well-known phenomenon and list what I expressly say are just a few examples of it, people will write with more, as if I’d neglected to mention them.

  3. mollymooly Says:

    The NYT has had “snafu” on its front page 9 times since 1981. This greater acceptability may be because fewer people know what it stands for, or because acronyms make people less conscious of the long-form even when they do know it.

  4. WTF « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”, here. The expression is military code for WTF, which is an initialistic avoidance of exclamatory what the fuck (or another WH the fuck expression — see Ben Zimmer on the […]

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