PATRIOT Word-Games

PATRIOT Word-Games 

How could anyone vote against a bill called the USA PATRIOT Act? Passed and signed 43 days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congressmen and Senators on both sides of the aisle and Administration officials feverishly worked on the legislation.

The Senate came up with a bill using the initialism USA to stand for “Uniting and Strengthening America.” It was the House Judiciary Committee that contributed PATRIOT — “Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” Who devised the name?  Attempts have been made to present this as a collective effort but it seems to have been the work of a junior staffer one year out of college, Christopher S. Cylke.

An acronym is a pronounceable word created from the initial letters of a phrase. The PATRIOT construction is an obvious “contrived acronym” or “backronym,” a “reverse engineered acronym” where a desired word is chosen as an acronym and filled in, often with clumsy and impossible-to-remember designations. In this case, some of those words — Intercept, Obstruct — have connotations that would have given hints of future controversy if anyone was paying attention.  A month after 9/11, nobody was.

The swift and successful passage of the USA PATRIOT act spawned an acronym/backronym boom on Capitol Hill. It seems like you can’t introduce legislation with a simple descriptive name anymore; it has to be the SNIPER Act, BE REAL Act, the SACRIFICE Act, or CARE Act.

Everyone agrees that acronyms make legislation memorable but there is a second, unstated advantage: the actual content and intent of bills can be obscured if the acronyms are positive symbols without relation to the subjects they purportedly stand for. Acronyms also lack the innate problems of bills named after their sponsors, for in Congress as in high school, political and personality differences often come into play when legislation is considered.

Chris Cylke, coiner of the PATRIOT backronym, is now the Minority Senior Legislative Assistant/Deputy Parliamentarian of the House Committee on the Judiciary. He is acknowledged for another innovation: campaign condiments. In 2004 he realized that fellow Republicans were dipping their Freedom Fries in a ketchup with the name of the Democratic presidential challenger’s spouse — Heinz — so Cylke and former college roommate and frat brother Patrick Spero introduced Bush Country Ketchup. The label showed a GOP elephant trampling Senator Kerry.

Bush Counrty Ketchup

Will history see the USA PATRIOT Act, like the Alien and Sedition Acts, as an over-reaction to events, hastily cobbled together and used for partisan advantage? Probably. Worse luck for future students of American history, the name of the USA PATRIOT Act provides no clues to its content.


“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Samuel Johnson, April 7, 1775

“For I read of our heroes, and wanted the same, To play out my part in the patriot game.” Dominic Behan (Doiminic Ó Beacháin) 1957.

2 Responses to “PATRIOT Word-Games”

  1. Celebrate Inaugural Security! « NotionsCapital Says:

    […] remind such whiners that the PATRIOT Act  still allows discrete detention of disgruntled dissenters, and there’s plenty of room at […]

  2. King George, III: The Thinking « Fuzzy English Says:

    […] it’s true, too. A blog called NotionsCapital (intentional spelling error?) reveals that the guy who got “clever,” as Bush puts it, […]

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