Is Stephen Fry’s excellent quiz programme, QI (Quite Interesting) shown on American television? If not, it should be. The programme is not like other quiz shows:
It is distinguished by the awarding of points not necessarily for the correct answer, but rather, for an interesting one. Many of the questions and answers are extremely obscure. Points are deducted from a panellist who gives an obvious but wrong (that is to say, boring or conventional) answer, typically one that is generally accepted as true but is, in fact, false. It is therefore possible (and quite likely) that a panellist will have a negative point score at the end of the game.
Hugh would do exceptionally well on this show. If he ever got the wrong answer, his answer would, as in the case of my quiz, be more interesting than the right one. Americans are allowed – there is at least one regular on the panel.
Because of the show's expectation that hardly anyone would be able to give a correct answer without significant prompting, it instead encourages sheer interestingness. As such, tangential discussions and even complete non-sequiturs abound on the show, for panellists are apt to branch off into frivolous conversations, give voice to train of thought, and share humorous anecdotes from their own lives.
Questions are sometimes misleading or fiendishly difficult. Providing an "obvious but wrong" answer results in a sequence of klaxons.
The klaxons would certainly sound if Alan Davies, the joker in the pack, answered the question: “What is the derivation of the word posh?” Alan would sound his buzzer, grinning from ear to ear, and cry: “Easy. Port Out, Starboard Home! First class cabins were shaded from the sun on outbound voyages (east) and return voyages (west). Everyone knows that.” After the klaxons had died down Stephen Fry would smile indulgently and say something like: “Dear, oh dear. This is a common misconception. The word 'posh' never stood for Port Out, Starboard Home. This is a reverse acronym formed after the original word by making the letters stand for something. It is, in other words, a bacronym.” A “quite interesting” discussion of bacronyms would follow. S.O.S., someone would say, is not an acronym meaning “save our ship” or “save our souls”. The Morse signal came first, because it is easily recognisable, and the acronym was made up later. Nor does “golf” stand for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden”.
Dot Wordsworth discusses a bacronym, although she doesn’t use the word:
[A] modern tendency Hugo Williams lighted upon is the assumption that new words are mostly derived from acronyms. One true acronym he mentioned, twoc, comes from ‘taking without consent’. This he calls a ‘coy’ word for ‘steal’. Really it is a separate crime, of driving away a ‘conveyance’ under the Theft Act 1968, section 12.
But he’s right about the acronymic assumption, and gives a folk-etymology for chav as ‘council house and violent’. I’d heard ‘cheap and vulgar’ and ‘Cheltenham average’. But as Mr Williams notes, it certainly derives from the Romany for ‘boy’. He, with Michael Quinion, the online etymologist, cites the Romany word as chavi. John Sampson’s Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales (Oxford, 1929), as I noted here in 2002, lists it under cavo (where the ‘c’ would be pronounced as ‘ch’.
The Spanish form, which Mr Williams cites as cheval, is more usually chaval and, according to the big dictionary by Corominas, this comes from cavale, the vocative masculine plural of cavo. In Catalonia they write it xaval, and in Barcelona use the form xava. In Chile, they say chey. In some Spanish gipsy dialects, the feminine is chavi. None of these have the connotations of our chav, and mean instead ‘lad’, ‘lass’, ‘prostitute’, according to context.
The vogue identity of British chavdom has changed in the past five years, and in a century’s time, readers will be hard put to get the force of each example from our days precisely right.
By the way, what does BACRONYM stand for?