Acronym fun

Since it deals with all sorts of military programs, organizations, and devices,”The Soft-Kill Solution: New frontiers in pain compliance” by Ando Arike, in the latest (March 2010) Harper’s Magazine, has plenty of acronyms, most of them new to me.

One of the names, however, was perfectly familiar to me, though I hadn’t appreciated it was an acronym: Taser (its registered name), often lower-cased to taser. The T and S come from Tom Swift, the hero of a popular American series of adventure novels for boys; Taser inventor John Cover was a great fan of the Tom Swift books. The E and R stand for Electric Rifle, Cover’s designation for a fictitious weapon along the lines of Cover’s actual invention. A middle initial A (not, apparently, in the Tom Swift books) then fills out a name parallel to the acronym laser.

This somewhat labored invention is then sometimes said to stand for “Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle”. But the OED says “Tom Swift’s electric rifle”, probably because the inventor-hero was referred to in the books as Tom Swift, not Thomas A. Swift.

Once we had the noun taser (first OED cite 1972), then along came the verbing taser (first cite 1976) and a verb tase (first cite 1991), which is either a shortening of the verb taser or a back-formation from the noun taser.

2 Responses to “Acronym fun”

  1. rhhardin Says:

    It surely owes its existence to laser and maser, similar death rays.

  2. Ben Zimmer Says:

    I wrote an OUPblog post on tase(r) in 2007, back in the days of “Don’t tase me, bro!” An excerpt:

    In the case of Taser, the brand name was coined by the inventor of the device, NASA scientist Jack Cover. Cover reportedly formed the name from the initial letters of Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, after the 1911 juvenile adventure novel Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. Since the protagonist Tom Swift never actually revealed his middle initial, we can guess that Taser is something of a backronym, i.e., a word that is “retrofitted” with an acronymic expansion after the fact. Taser appears to be modeled on an earlier acronym, laser (”light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation”), which in turn was modeled on maser (”microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”). Another possible inspiration for Taser is phaser, the name of a fictional weapon familiar to Star Trek fans. According to Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry originally wanted to call the weapon a laser but then opted for phaser instead.

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