by Mar 17, 2008Linguistics

I admit it. Look it up. “Snafu” has a less-than-clean etymology.

The other day, a nice middle-aged man heard me say, “Oops, I made a little snafu!” He later stopped me kindly in private and informed me about the word’s etymology. “I was sure you wouldn’t have used the word had you known where it came from!” he said. I didn’t think it appropriate to reply with anything other than, “Oh! Ok!” And I haven’t used it in his presence since. He really is a good man!

But for the sake of biblical studies, here’s my reply, borrowing from Moisés Silva’s excellent book, Biblical Words and Their Meaning (p. 38):

We must accept the obvious fact that the speakers of a language simply know next to nothing about its development.

Silva’s point is that the historical development of Κοινη Greek words is not nearly as important as many interpreters imagine. My point is that people simply don’t use “snafu” as an acronym anymore. If my own internal usage computer, which has been processing English since 1980, isn’t enough proof, check out the title to a PCWorld magazine article from last October:


Windows Update again upgrades machines without user permission; Microsoft has no explanation.

PCWorld isn’t exactly a rebellious and profane organ of the far left. “Snafu” simply means “a mess,” no matter what it meant in 1941.

Usage determines meaning.

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