So what happened? Well, I'm tempted to blame The West Wing. On the rare occasions when I dipped into that wildly overrated showcase for smugness, sentimentality and Rob Lowe's teeth, there was usually someone talking about POTUS. This, in case you haven't watched the show, stands for President of the United States. It's not a proper word, though there is a passing resemblance to the Latin adjective potens (powerful) that makes me feel slightly better disposed toward it.
To be fair, creator Aaron Sorkin was only trying to reflect the rarified world of Washington political circles, in which acronyms help to make everything sound even more important and mysterious. As JE Lighter's article in The Atlantic suggests, POTUS was probably in play as far back as Franklin D Roosevelt. But FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States), which was bandied about during the Clinton years in reference to Hillary, is just horrible. As for the Republican Party's cutesy nickname GOP (Grand or Good Old Party)—it really makes me want to reassess my anti-guns stance.
A galaxy of wildly implausible acronyms was part of the landscape of 60s spy yarns. Ian Fleming's 007 novels introduced SMERSH, a Soviet counterintelligence organisation that apparently means "death to spies". In the films, SMERSH takes a back seat to the parade of villains from the equally sinister body known as SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion).
But it's the Bond imitators who provide some of the best pseudo or contrived acronyms from the period. The British spoof Carry on Spying has STENCH (Society for the Total Extermination of Non-Conforming Humans); the James Coburn Flint movies came up with ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage); and the UNCLE franchise turns out to be nothing less than United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
Headlines about WAGs and GOATs are one thing, but thanks largely to the moronic American Pie (1999), a far more unedifying acronym has now polluted popular culture. MILF (mother I'd like to ****) might have been mildly amusing if it had remained a throwaway line in that bafflingly popular franchise. Sadly, the infinitely more sophisticated sitcom 30 Rock has continued the joke with the hit reality show "MILF Island", which throws super-hot moms together with horny teenage boys.
I know I should be laughing, but as acronyms become ever more puerile I'm starting to think that an organization like STENCH might be the best way forward for the preservation of the English language.