History Stories

Think acronyms are a product of the digital era? Think again.

Long before AOL Instant Messenger, Winston Churchill received a World War I letter that said “OMG” (LOL). And decades before Baby Boomers began wringing their hands over “sexting,” their parents were sending each other racy acronyms in their World War II letters.

Some of these acronyms were fairly mild by today’s standards. For example, soldiers and their sweethearts might write SWAK or SWALK on the back of an envelope to say “Sealed With a (Loving) Kiss” (and they might actually leave a lipstick imprint too). This acronym was probably popular before WWII. But during the war, soldiers and civilians also seem to have come up with more risqué acronyms using geographic names. NORWICH, for example, could mean “(k)Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home,” while CHINA could be code for “Come Home I’m Naked Already.”

These acronyms appeared at a time when soldiers and civilians were sending a lot of letters to each other. In the U.S., “mail was considered to be the number one morale builder in a service person’s life…so writing letters was considered your patriotic duty,” says Judy Barrett Litoff, a history professor at Bryant University who started the U.S. Women and World War II Letter Writing Project. “The numbers of letters that were written by Americans in World War I were in the millions. The number of letters written by Americans in World War II was in the billions, with a ‘b.’”

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Censors monitored their soldiers’ mail to remove anything that might give away military secrets, so it’s possible some couples used romantic acronyms to be more discreet since other people were reading their mail. The British Royal Navy was fairly strict in the acronyms it permitted its sailors to use. But, according to the BBC, it did issue an edict allowing them to use certain ones, including OOLAAKOEW—Oceans Of Love And A Kiss On Every Wave.

Martha Jean Kuhn (left) shows a friend a letter from her boyfriend, an American airman stationed in Britain during World War II, in Grafton, West Virginia, 1943.

Martha Jean Kuhn (left) shows a friend a letter from her boyfriend, an American airman stationed in Britain during World War II, in Grafton, West Virginia, 1943.

Acronyms, in general, were a popular form of communication during WWII. Some were standard descriptions, like ETO for “European Theater of Operations”; others were crude and sarcastic, like SNAFU for “Situation Normal, All F***ed Up.” Acronyms may have also been useful for couples trying to get their message across using a new wartime mailing system that didn’t allow for as much space as a normal letter. In the U.S., this new mail system was called V-mail, or Victory mail.

“So many letters were being written, they were taking up space in much needed wartime transport,” Barrett Litoff says. “In order to address this problem, what the government did was encourage Americans to write V-mails.” V-mails were messages written on one side of an 8-by-11½-inch card that were then captured on microfilm and shipped overseas. Transporting messages by microfilm freed up a lot of space, but it didn’t allow the letter writer to go over one page. “If you typed your letter you could get about 700 words on it,” she says.

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The romantic acronyms that appear in WWII correspondence weren’t part of any official, Allies-wide military code, so their spelling and meaning differed depended on who was writing them and where they were from. One definition of the acronym EGYPT is “Ever Give You Pleasant Thoughts,” according to the BBC. But in the book To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, author Simon Garfield finds a different translation: “Eager to Grab Your Pretty T**s.”

Garfield lists a few other WWII romantic acronyms in his book: ITALY, “I Trust And Love You”; BURMA, “Be Undressed Ready My Angel”; MALAYA, “My Ardent Lips Await Your Arrival”; and VENICE, “Very Excited Now I Caress Everywhere.” 

He also finds the much tamer FRANCE, meaning “Friendship Remains And Never Can End”—a nice sentiment to send to your platonic friend, or maybe even a way to let a guy down gently in a “Dear John” letter.

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