[Neal Whitman (visiting from, June 23, 2004 at 11:36pm] Trackbacks
Almost-Recursive Acronyms

There've been a number of posts about acronyms recently on some of the blogs I read. One was from me, one from Glen, and one from the guy at Semantic Compositions. This last one reminded me of a letter to the editor I wrote some 15 years ago. The post is about recursive acronyms, the cited example being GNU, which expands to "GNU's not Unix." One of the letters in a recursive acronym (theoretically any one of them, but always the first one in the examples I've seen) stands for the acronym itself, leading to an infinite loop when one tries to expand out the acronym. As I read the post, I thought back to my freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin... ah, yes... I remember it as if it were a segment on Letterman...

I was reading in the campus newspaper about a newly formed student organization that called itself QUEERS. That's QUEERS, not Queers. It was an acronym. I was curious what the acronym could stand for, since there aren't that many words beginning with Q, and probably even fewer that would be relevant. What could it be? Quest? Quintessential? I read on. QUEERS, as it turned out, stood for "Queers United Envisioning an Egalitarian Restructuring of Society."

At first I was just disappointed. That was it? The elusive first word of QUEERS was just queers? That wasn't very clever at all. Then I began to be alarmed. You see, I had just read Douglas Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, Bach, which had introduced me to the concept of a recursive acronym in the name of a genie in one chapter-opening vignette. The genie's name was GOD, which stood for "GOD Over Djinn." When asked to grant a meta-wish for an infinite number of ordinary wishes to be granted, GOD had to initiate an infinite recursion to all the GODs above him to get the required permission for such a wish. This QUEERS organization was flirting dangerously with infinite recursion! The only thing that saved them was the wise decision to have Q stand for Queers, and not for QUEERS.

I wrote a letter to that effect, and was pleasantly surprised to see it printed a week or so later. Returning to the present, though, I wonder how many other almost-recursive acronyms like QUEERS are out there. I found one on this page, though it was listed as a true recursive acronym: Cygnus, standing for "Cygnus, Your GNU Support." This acronym might escape from infinite recursion since Cygnus has a meaning other than the company with this name--specifically, a constellation. However, since Cygnus the company probably doesn't mean for the C to stand for a constellation, I guess this might be a truly recursive acronym after all. (I will give Cygnus credit for one thing: They are not guilty of acronym-stacking! More on that later.) So at this point, QUEERS stands alone in my list of almost-recursive acronyms. Additions to the list are welcomed.

Paul Jones (mail) (www):
Just a lazy picking comment, GNU stands for Gnu is Not UNIX. The name, Gnu, was created by the author of Emacs, Richard Stallman to set the operating system he was proposing apart from the ATT-own UNIX product.
6.24.2004 8:49am
> I guess this might be a truly recursive acronym after all.

The fact that the constellation Cygnus, the name of which is not an acronym, does not offer GNU support, whereas the company Cygnus, the name of which is the acronym under discussion, does offer GNU support, just might be a clue.
6.24.2004 8:56am
Luis Villa (mail) (www):
At one time,the GNOME project had a component model project called BABOON, which stood for 'BABOON Activates BABOON Objects Over Network'- the most recursive name I'm aware of outside of GEB. Sadly, before any serious docs were written, it was renamed 'bonobo', since it allowed frequent mating of code objects in a variety of configurations.
6.24.2004 9:24am
Jeff R.:
I think that you have GNU crossed up with PINE (PINE Is Not Emacs), another for the list.
6.24.2004 10:56am
Jonathan (mail) (www):
I remember an old Dilbert cartoon in which Dilbert and Wally were discussing "The TTP Project". Recursion in both directions!
6.24.2004 10:56am
Jim Gibson (mail):
I remember you! I think. I read a letter-to-the-editor in the Daily Texan (probably 1991, but I can't remember for sure) expressing disappointment that the first letter of QUEERS stood for "queers". I don't know why, but it made quite an impression on me and I've since been on the lookout for similar lazy acronyms.
6.24.2004 11:45am
Actually, PINE is an acronym for "Program for Internet News and Email". Though it's been sometimes joked than it's an acronym for "PINE Is Not ELM". ELM being the ELectronic Mailer that PINE largely replaced.
6.24.2004 11:48am
Keith Avery (mail):
PHP is a recursive acroynm. It stands for PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor.

However I thought this was a bit contrived, personally.
6.24.2004 2:48pm
Jim Hu:
There was a program called MINCE, which was MINCE is Not Complete Emacs. Also see:
6.24.2004 3:19pm
Novalis (mail) (www):
Then there's HURD (the official GNU kernel, which as far as anyone can tell, no one uses):
HURD - Hird of Unix Replacing Daemons
HIRD - Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth
6.24.2004 4:11pm
Wacky Hermit (www):
If you liked Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Back, you might want to check out his Metamagical Themas as well. There's an interesting discussion in there involving some drool-inducing recursive Italian food.

Wacky Hermit
6.24.2004 4:31pm
Bob Munck:
How about self-descriptive acronyms? That's a kind of meta-recursion. TLA is fairly well known, but there's also IVLA.
6.24.2004 8:12pm
David Carroll:
One almost-recursive acronym that comes to mind is Orrin Hatch's proposed INDUCE Act of 2004. Here "INDUCE" stands for "INducement Devolves into Unlawful Child Exploitation Act of 2004."

I think we need a new term, "Malacronym", for constructions as turgid as this one.
6.25.2004 3:01am
belle waring (mail) (www):
I noticed the other day that blogger Mark A. R. Kleiman's initials can be regarded as a recursive acronym of sorts spelling "MARK."
6.25.2004 10:25am