Friday, January 6, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

I met a new word this past week: quango.

Now, before you race for your dictionary (print or electronic), take a moment to think about what it might mean. Yes, it's a real word, although it is an acronym, that has come to serve as a word in its own right.

I stumbled upon it in on an Irish news network website—but no, it's not an Irish word (that would be cheating). I first laughed, and then I did a double take and reread it, to make sure I'd seen it correctly, because it sounded so silly.

It's not one of those new words that the cyberworld seems to spawn each year. In fact, the word has been around for decades. I just didn't notice it.

In my widely (wildly?) varied career, I've meandered through many fields and disciplines, each of which has its own vocabulary. Art history: chiaroscuro, tympanum, gesso, impasto, and so on. Investment banking: debenture, strips, CATS, swaps. Genealogy: Ahnentafel, linear versus collateral. Many of these may be borrowed from other sources or languages, but they acquire a different meaning within a field. The net result is that I have a brain stuffed with obscure words, most of which are useful only in crossword puzzles. (I'm keeping score to see how many crossword-puzzle-makers manage to squeeze "ern (var. erne)" into their puzzles. Do you know what that is?)

And then there's the aforementioned cyberlingo. Did you ever think you'd use "friend" as a verb? Or find yourself asking someone, would you please retweet my blog? Here, use this hashtag? Ten years ago this would have been gibberish to most of us (hey, I'm happy I can remember what "wysiwyg" is!). Now we see it every day, and even our televised newscasters use such references.

Language changes regularly, as it should. New applications require new words, or at least adopted and redefined (or should I say repurposed?) older ones. But the words need to catch and hold a person's attention, either because they're so appropriate or so blatantly inappropriate that they are unforgettable.

I would put quango in the latter category. It sounds silly, doesn't it? Like a game involving fruit, where the person who first fills a digital fruit basket has to yell "quango!" Nope, not even close. It could be Chinese, or garbled French (C'est ici un quangueau extraordinaire!), but it's not.

Give up? Here is the official definition: Quango derives from the term "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization," first created in 1967 by Alan Pifer of the Carnegie Foundation, and shortened to "quango" (thank you!) by Anthony Barker, a British participant at a later conference. Interesting that we can pinpoint with that degree of precision exactly when the term came into being. It describes a kind of non-governmental organization that performs government functions, with or without the support of said government. I think our Fannie Mae (FNMA, the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, FHLMC) would fit that definition, although as I recall they were once labeled quasi-governmental agencies, and are now known as GSEs—government-sponsored enterprises.

Quango is a term used primarily in the UK, which has well over a thousand of the things. Ireland has nearly a thousand of its own, including the Abbey Theater, the National Gallery and National Library in Dublin, the Irish Tourist agency, and the main Irish news networks. I stumbled upon it when I read an Irish news headline stated that as part of the national austerity program, quangos would be reduced in number as a cost-cutting measure. Farewell, redundant and useless quangos—I hardly knew you.

But at least now you'll know it if you see it. Do you have favorite absurd word of your own?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

So it's a derivative of NGO, a very well known acronym, never confused with an actual word, for organizations like Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders--the kind of organization that might have lobbyists at the UN. The next question is, since "NGO" exists, is "Quango" necessary? And speaking of crossword puzzles and the like, when I was a kid, my father used to infuriate us during Scrabble games by using "id," which we had a lot of trouble believing was a word. In retrospect, that became very funny to me when I grew up and became a shrink, even though I'm far from being a Freudian.

Diane said...

I was raised in the military where acronyms are a way of life. Dad was Air Force and I married an Air Force officer. A good friend was a Navy brat, and she married Navy. After retirement her husband worked for what we called a 'beltway bandit', a military contractor in the DC area. He loved jokes and would occasionally email some - from work. And once in a while, he would hit the wrong mailing list. I'd receive something that was full of acronyms, and mail back: wrong mailing list. Didn't even want to figure it out, in case it was 'sensitive'. Which he always said it wasn't.

The Air Force wasn't usually as bad as the Navy, though once in a while you'd get a winner. Who would want to say they worked in footfud? That was how they pronounced FTFD. Don't remember what it meant, though.

Also, we have now commmon words in the English language (and I suspect in other languages, too) that started out as acronyms. Sonar, for example.