What is the first metaphorical use of “alphabet soup” to refer collectively to some kind of diversity? Does it date any earlier than the film “North by Northwest”, in which the expression is used by the Professor to refer collectively to the highest-level intelligence services of the country?

  • From (Contributions from the Charleston Museum) 1913: I may be able to take others, but all these came from a small area in the Reedy valley and so much governmental *alphabet soup has been turned into it in the efforts to 'improve' the stream that I have my doubts. Some rare plant forms have***. books.google.it/… – user66974 May 19 '15 at 8:53

My guess is that it comes from the soup with alphabet-shaped pasta in it, Alphabet Soup. As Wikipedia says:

Alphabet pasta, also referred to as Alfabeto, Alphaghetti or Alphabetti Spaghetti, is pasta that has been mechanically cut or pressed into the letters of an alphabet. It is often served in an alphabet soup, sold in a can of condensed broth. Another variation, Alphaghetti, consists of letter-shaped pasta in a marinara or spaghetti sauce.
A similar product, Alphabetti Spaghetti, was sold by the H. J. Heinz Company for 60 years before being discontinued in 1990.

Now, any group of agencies that identify themselves with their acronyms tends to appear to people as simply "a whole bunch of letters". So referring to the security agencies (NSA, CIA, FBI, and what have you) as an alphabet soup simply invokes the image of a whole bunch of letters on your plate.

Wikipedia calls it a metaphor:

Alphabet soup is a metaphor for an abundance of abbreviations or acronyms, named for a common dish made from alphabet pasta.

Similar expressions that indicate the tendency to overuse acronyms are YABA (Yet Another Bloody Acronym) and TLA (Three Letter Acronym, used to generically denote any such organisation or agency).

  • 1
    I would think that's obvious, but maybe not, especially if alphabet soup is no longer sold. – Hot Licks Nov 3 '15 at 23:38
  • (Sadly, when I studied the soup row in a large US Midwest grocery store today, alphabet soup was absent, though Campbell's still lists "Healthy Kids Chicken Alphabet" on their web site. I suspect it's a ghost product, given that "find a store" found nothing.) – Hot Licks Nov 5 '15 at 22:21
  • @HotLicks - I think you have to buy the package of dry alphabet pasta and then make your own soup from it. I haven't looked recently, but I did find it about 8 years ago when my younger son was at the key stage. – aparente001 Feb 20 '17 at 16:14

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