For the Win

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 20 (1000×300)


Depending on how old you are and what circles you inhabit, FTW might put you in mind of a valiant effort against the Horde or the Empire: For the Win. On the other hand, it might put you in a mind to throw on some old punk records and smash all the windows in sight: Fuck the World.

What's most interesting here is the idea of context. Abbreviations and acronyms (technically, FTW is an initialism) have always been a part of the English language (see the August 7, 2019 episode of The Secret History of the Future podcast for a fun take on how internet culture is nothing new, just an update to telegraph culture) and the internet with its various forms of quick communication has both facilitated and encouraged their spread into everyday speech.

I've written about this sort of thing before (Learned Vol. 1, Issue 45: M.U.S.C.L.E. and Learned Vol. 1, Issue 8: Annotated), so I don't want to repeat myself too much. Instead, I want to focus on the oddity and ever-growing problem of having too acronyms with the same letters. Both sets of FTW can trace their origins back to the 70s and, most likely, much earlier.

For the Win probably came into existence through sports or other team activities but gained prominence on the t.v. game show Hollywood Squares. On the show, to claim a winning phrase, contestants had to preface their answer with for the win. From there, the phrase went dormant for a few years until the rise of online, cooperative gaming. There, players had to organize themselves into teams in different games and the phrase, with its brief, catchy acronym, came back into prominence.

Fuck the World, on the other hand, owes its existence to biker gangs. Biker culture is full of acronyms and shorthands; like a lot of criminal operations, members of the groups used these linguistic shortcuts to communicate a lot of information very quickly, whether to organize and assist each other or just to commiserate. From biker culture, the phrase (and again, a catchy little acronym) spread to other anti-establishment cultures, like punk rock, where it has stayed and is still in common use.

So, uh, how to tell them apart? Like I said above, context is everything.

As English speakers, we're used to this being true. Recent slang for cool (the Online Slang dictionary lists 405 synonyms…) involves all manner of words for fire: fire itself, lit, flame, etc. But none of us make the mistake of using cool to fill a room with light, nor do we call a wildfire cool. (Well, not all of us.) But, for learners of English, these rules are not always so obvious and that is even more true for acronyms. How to tell when a given set of letters means let's do this! and when the same set means, let's give up!

It gets even worse when we consider manipulations of the original acronym. Suppose you're a polite punk rocker and you don't want to throw the F-word around too loosely. So, you write Eff the World! Now, your non-English speaking friend has learnt that and proceeds to fill their chats and texts with Eff the Win! and can't understand why their teammates think they want to give up.

The really big question though, is, does it matter? How long will it be before these acronyms just fade away? Or else become so universal that the original meaning behind the initials gets lost to time (like okay?) Eventually, a given acronym will become so pervasive that the words used to create it become irrelevant (quick, what does SCUBA stand for?); more likely, the phrase becomes tired and gets phased out, as is already starting to happen with FTW. Games have changed, punk rock has changed, and the circumstances in which either iteration is useful have changed along with them.

I wonder what FTW will stand for next? (1000×100)

From the Online Slang Dictionary:

acronym for "For The Win". Used as after a noun to indicate one's enthusiastic support for that noun.

acronym for "fuck the world". (1000×100)

Notable Events of the Year 1972:

You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:

More information can be found on the About page, or by contacting me through emailtwitter, or instagram. Thank you for reading. (1000×100)

There’s a fun, little subsection of acronyms and initialisms you might be familiar with: mnemonics. Even if you don’t know the word, you’ve probably learned a few over the years to remember sequential bits of information, like the notes on a piano or the names of the planets. Here are a few I’ve been re-learning lately:

*Pluto, FTW!

Next Time: FUBAR. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

Loading more posts…