The latest appalling idiocy of the internet is that the name of the children's game tag is an acronym. That drew a flood of traffic to the word's entry (from 24 hits on July 11 to 8,998 hits on July 17) — thank you on behalf of intellectual honesty to everyone who took the trouble to look it up. Yesterday I took the unusual step of editing the etymonline entry to make an explicit push-back against that claim.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.etymonline.com/columns/post/acronymphomania
Maybe something like this could be added to the list of ways to interrogate an acronym-based etymological theory:
Note: I feel as if I’ve only said something quite simple, using far too many words, but I have to leave soon so here it is.
Look at how well it serves the purposes of acronyms, and whether its creation followed an acronym-like pattern. It’s usually clear exactly where or who an acronym comes from – a specific organization or individual – and when it was introduced (if an exact date can’t be pinpointed, it’s usually a narrow range corresponding with the introduction of what the acronym refers to or with where the originator was – for example if it could only have been while the originator still worked at a certain place). And the meanings of acronyms are almost always clear and well known to the people who use them; in general, if expanding an acronym to its full form “reveals” anything about the acronym to its users, it’s probably the made-up type. The only time the expansion of an acronym should be expected to reveal or to educate is when it’s being shown to someone who hasn’t used the acronym before. Even if a regular user of some acronym forgets exactly what one of the letters stands for, they don’t lose their mental connection between the acronym and what it refers to, and when a bureaucratic acronym is euphemistically given a new expansion, users remember the original meaning.
(There are cases in which an acronym created in a limited context – military jargon for example – starts to be used in ordinary language. In those cases, the acronym’s new wave of popularity can end up introducing it to people who misunderstand its original intent and who obscure or change its meaning.)
In short, if someone tells you a certain word is an acronym, but they can’t tell you the exact year it comes from (or at least very close) and exactly who invented it (or unnamed members of exactly which organization for exactly what purpose), if they can’t show you a printed sample of the acronym in all capital letters with its expansion beside it from about the same year, and if that word was already in your vocabulary (not one you just learned), you can be pretty sure it’s just made up.
Adding to a too-long post: Any time you find out “We’ve been saying this word all along without knowing what it actually means”, be very very suspicious that it’s a hoax. It usually is.