I know the wiki origin puts SNAFU as appearing during WWII as the first in a long line of military slang, BUT, years ago I recollect reading in an electronics magazine, likely 'Wireless World' from 60's-70's (hence inclusion here), that this term was one of several similar acronyms which originated in US telegraphy around the time of the Iron Horse, Indian raids etc.

A telegraph operator, on arriving at the scene of a break, might find that the local American Indians had pulled down telegraph poles. 'Situation Normal' meant that the raiders had gone and 'All Fouled Up' referred to the state of the wire. The engineer on scene would hook up his telegraph set and report, via Morse, certain terse messages to indicate state of play. There were other related messages; though I don't recall which they were.

This all makes some sense, as when the US joined in WWII there was a chronic shortage of trained telegraph operators and history records that retired operators (otherwise too old to meet draft requirements) were initially brought in to perform telegraphy duties and training on Navy ships. Working backwards these gentleman would have been present during the peak of US telegraphy operations and would have been steeped in the traditions of the service going back to its introduction in the mid 1800's. Can anyone identify the provenance of this article? I think it is too old to have found its way into public domain via PDF. It paints a great story so please don't tell me it was dated April 1st! More importantly it highlights a problem with google/wiki 'knowledge' as relates to topics where there exists little knowledge. Once the received wisdom finds its way onto the net, it becomes 'truth' even though it may be incorrect.

Any ideas anyone?

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    Whether or not Wireless World published such an article, I would take this story with a lorry-load of salt. The OED dates the word from 1941: this story would require that it had at least 40 years currency without ever being recorded, at least anywhere where the OED has found. You are right about how uncritically people accept good stories about history, but this long predates the Internet. Consider for example posh.
    – Colin Fine
    May 25, 2012 at 12:01
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    I think this is what you're looking for. See the clip from p. 59. It appears to be a letter to the editor. Maybe someone can access the rest of it. May 25, 2012 at 14:01
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    Here's a bit more of it. May 25, 2012 at 14:08
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    @HotLicks It seem plausible that SNAFU comes from pre-war telegraphy. The first requirement of "Fake News" is that it is plausible.
    – Greybeard
    Dec 22, 2020 at 11:21
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    Note that "snafu" translates as ... -. .- ..-. ..-, while "situation normal all f***ed up" translates as ... .. - ..- .- - .. --- -. / -. --- .-. -- .- .-.. / .- .-.. .-.. / ..-. ..- -.-. -.- . -.. / ..- .--.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 22, 2020 at 12:55

6 Answers 6


Wireless World

Here's the start of the story Callithumpian found in Wireless World (possibly volume 88, 1982):

In your February issue, Pat Hawker mentions "SNAFU" as a coinage of War II. I think he and your readers may be interested to know its pre-war origin.

During the said war it was my pleasure to work for a time with two clever and humorous American Western Electric telephone engineers, and they told me that their pre-war jobs had been to go to telephone exchanges where there was trouble and rectify it. Upon arrival at the site an engineer would make a brief estimate of how serious was the trouble, establish a telephone link to his headquarters and send back a code word. His home base would therefore know he had arrived where the problems were, have a rough idea of how long it would take to clear them and have a telephone number where he could be contacted if need be. There were three code words: SNAFU - Situation normal, all fouled up" (or words to that effect); TARFU - "Things are really fouled up"; and FUBAR - "Fouled up beyond any repair". The latter would be sent if, for instance, a telephone exchange had been seriously damaged by fire or flood, while SNAFU would be used for a situation where cables or machinery had been damaged but where repairs or replacement would be ...


Back to SNAFU. The OED says it's also originally US military slang, with the first citation from a September 1941 edition of American Notes & Queries, apparently in reply to a May 1941 article:

<< ARMY AIR SLANG (1:22 May '41)

The influence of air slang seems to have had no effect on army lingo here. There is very little, in all, that could be called really new: and most of it is unprintable. But if AN&Q would like these three — just for the record — here they are:

latrine-o-gram — baseless rumor (the latrine is the source of many a baseless rumor!)
snafu — situation normal
susfu — situation unchanged

Private "W"
Camp Forrest, Tenn.

This suggests SNAFU entered army slang from air slang.

Don Taylor

Roaring Fish found another etymology of SNAFU from Don Taylor (wayback). Taylor says in April or May of 1941 (before Pearl Harbor) during radio network training at Camp San Luis Obispo, California, it came from a mechanical coding device that scrambled messages into five letter code groups. He and John Paup entertained themselves by forming initialisms from the codes.

Taylor's son Greg (wayback) writes:

One day, as he recalls, he received a code group S.N.A.F.U. from Johnny Paup.

"It was instantaneous, inevitable, and there was no question," the words came to him; "SITUATION NORMAL, ALL F - - - - D UP! To Taylor and other enlisted types, this perfectly described the military growing pains before and just after Pearl Harbor.

Eventually S.N.A.F.U. spread like V.D. in an off base W - - - E house. It went everywhere there was radio communication. The Pentagon literally survived on various levels of "SNAFU" until Warner Brothers picked up on it for their training film star!

Don continues:

As to how it spread, there is no way of knowing for certain. I think initially it got spread all over the 40th Infantry Division. At that point in time people were being sent to training schools such as Fort Monmouth, N.J., & Fort Benning Georgia. People from other divisions would be attending such schools and would take "SNAFU" back to their outfits when their training was completed. We also had people that were already proficient in certain jobs and they were sent in small groups to become the nucleus for new Divisions. There were also a number of individuals that were sent to Officer Candidate schools.

OED antedatings

Taylor's story is discussed on the Snopes forums:

Fred Shapiro has provided evidence that "snafu" was in use at Camp Joseph T. Robinson (North Little Rock, Arkansas) in late July, 1941, a sighting that slightly antedates that which the OED provides. (I've also found two instances of "snafu" in use in early August, 1941, also with regard to khaki field hats. As with Shapiro's July find, soldiers from Kansas reported using the term at Camp Robinson. There's no indication in these August newspaper articles that "snafu" is an acronym, but a private does describe the new hats as "horrible," so one might assume that "snafu" generally referred to things and situations "all fucked up.")

I guess a question, then, is whether there's enough time for an acronym said to have been coined in San Luis Obispo in April/May 1941 to have made it to North Little Rock by late July. I think it's at least possible, given that the explanation in the link in the OP offers an origin in radio transmission and mentions that,

Quote: As to how it spread, there is no way of knowing for certain. I think initially it got spread all over the 40th Infantry Division. At that point in time people were being sent to training schools such as Fort Monmouth, N.J., & Fort Benning Georgia. People from other divisions would be attending such schools and would take "SNAFU" back to their outfits when their training was completed. We also had people that were already proficient in certain jobs and they were sent in small groups to become the nucleus for new Divisions. There were also a number of individuals that were sent to Officer Candidate schools.

Note that Shapiro's July find mentions that "[t]he sergeant went on to explain that 'snafu' was a term the 35th division outfits that went on maneuvers over in Tennessee last month [June] imported to Camp Robinson." It's difficult to know whether the Tennessee usage referred specifically to hats or whether this reflected a general usage of "snafu" with its implication that things were "fucked up."

Shapiro's sergeant says the name first applied to khaki hats, and suggests the name came first and then "somebody decided it was a bunch of letters that stood for words". These hats references are interesting, and deserve more attention -- did why exactly was snafu used for hats in the first place?

There's also Tennessee again, where Private "W" wrote from in September 1941 (OED).

Barry Popik found this in the San Francisco Chronicle, 15 June 1941, pg. 5, col. 4:

Army Camps
Developing a
"Snafu" means "situation normal, all fuddled up."
"Red Lead" is tomatoes, tomato sauce or ketchup.
Cream and sugar or salt and pepper are "sidearms." Salt, alone, is "sea-dust."
Spinach is "seaweed."

Bonnie Taylor-Blake adds:

From Howard Needham's "Slanguage: Army Camps Developing a Dictionary," The San Francisco Chronicle, 15 June 1941, p. 5. Needham, a staff writer for the Chronicle, filed his report from Hunter Liggett Reservation, southern Monterey County, California the previous day. He attributed a crop of expressions new to Hunter Liggett to some 35,000 troops who had arrived from Fort Lewis, Washington.

Acronyms in general

Back to the Wireless World story. The story tells of two telephone engineers who used SNAFU, TARFU and FUBAR as code words in their pre-war jobs at Western Electric (founded 1872, defunct 1995).

It's possible, but seems unlikely partly because there's no written evidence that these were used before World War II.

"TARFU" was our embellishment on "snafu." Snafu, already in use all over the US and not only in the military, meant "Situation normal, all fucked up." You were supposed to say this with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, indicating that the submoronic people and junky devices you had to deal with would naturally fail. We in troop carrier, responsible as we were for immensely delicate and complex machinery and saddled with impossibly ambitious flying assignments, had to go beyond snafu; so we used "Things Are Really Fucked Up!"

  • And finally, apart from a few exceptions such as POTUS, "acronyms didn't become a common method of word formation in English until World War II", according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
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    I tip my cap to you. That's quite the etymological dig you put together, which was rather satisfying to read.
    – ND Geek
    Oct 14, 2016 at 0:55

A specific early instance of snafu (with definition) appears in a story titled "It's All 'SNAFU' to Me!" and datelined Fort Ord, California, in the [San Francisco] New World-Sun (June 20, 1941), which reads in its entirety as follows:

It's All 'SNAFU' to Me!

Nisei Selectees Find Army Life Series of Complicated but Absorbing Lingo

FORT ORD [California], June 19—The more quick-witted among the Nisei draftees here now in training in Uncle Sam's growing army of defense are rapidly absorbing a host of new words, the new language of the camps.

The Army lingo on the common expressions follows: Tomatoes and catsup are "red lead." salt and pepper "side arms." Salt by itself, "sea dust," spinach "seaweed," and that anybody who didn't have such elemental knowledge undoubtedly was a "yard bird." That's thesame theat Snuffy is in the comic strip ["Barney Google and Snuffy Smith," in which Barney Google is an urbane and well-heeled sportsman and Snuffy Smith is essentially an Ozarks hillbilly].

There are other more complicated lingo which the more "progressive" Nisei trainees are beginning to learn. For instance, "poopsheets" refer to all written memoranda, "jawbone" is the term for the enlisted men's credit system. And then there is "snafu."

This last one got Jack Benny when he was here entertaining the boys. "Snafu" means: "Situation normal—all fuddled up."

The fact that this instance of usage came from Fort Ord—which is located in north-central California, just inland from Monterey Bay—offers significant support for the military origin of the acronym.

A side note of some historical interest is the fact that this article focuses on the experience of Japanese-American draftees in U.S. Army training camps in the summer of 1941. (The tag line for the New World-Sun was "Monarch of Japanese Dailies.") The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred just over six months later (December 7, 1941) and resulted in the now-infamous relocation of the vast majority of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to internment camps. The New World-Sun appears to have ceased publication after December 8, 1941.


SNAFU seems to date back to before 1939:

There is reference to a dog – a squadron mascot in the US Army Airforce – called “Corporal Snafu” in Living Tissue (copyright 1939) - Volumes 25-29 - Page 4, in a story reprinted from p. 15 of This Week (The Sunday Star, Washington D. C.), Sept. 13, 1942. The indication is that the phrase/intialism existed before the dog, and probably originated among flyers in the US Airforce.

In the magazine “LIFE” of 31 May 1943, there is a letter asking for an explanation of “Snafu”. Clearly, at that time, the word was not common, indicating a recent or restricted currency. The reply is “Situation normal all fouled up.” Although I can’t help but think that “fouled” is a minced oath for “fucked”.

  • The Google Books page for Living Tissue that you link to bears the title "Living Tissue, Volumes 25–29" with the further notation "New England Anti-Vivisection Society., 1939." It is worth noting, however, that the date 1939 in all likelihood refers to the earliest year in the multiyear period included in this bundle of issues of the periodical; since the page says that five volumes (25–29) are included, it follows that the period represented in the bundle is 1939–1943. The snippets relating to the cartoon character Corporal Snafu could be from any date within that range. ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 23, 2020 at 20:34
  • ... A look at the details of the first snippet (the one from "page 4" of the unidentified issue of the periodical), reveals a couple of tell-tale details. First, it mentions that "Corporal Snafu" is a member of the U.S. Army Air Forces; the Wikipedia article on this military entity specifies that it "was created on 20 June 1941 as successor to the previous United States Army Air Corps"; so already we know that this issue of Living Tissue couldn't have been published earlier than June 1941. ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 23, 2020 at 20:34
  • ... Second, the Wikipedia article on Private Snafu notes that the character first appeared in a cartoon for the U.S. Army Air Force on 28 June 1943. It's interesting that the character is identified in these cartoons as "Private Snafu" rather as "Corporal Snafu" (as the Living Tissue snippet has it), but I doubt that this disparity has much bearing on the essential question of when the Living Tissue article first appeared.
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 23, 2020 at 20:34
  • Final note: I hadn't registered until now that "Corporal Snafu" is, as you note, a squadron mascot. It seems highly likely that it was named in honor of the cartoon Private Snafu, which would again tend to put the date of the Living Tissue article sometime in the latter half of 1943. A Hathi Trust search for "Corporal Snafu" yields the notation "Published 1943" for the resulting match.
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 23, 2020 at 21:28
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    @SvenYargs Considering the source (the anti-vivisection society), you probably shouldn't dissect this answer.
    – JEL
    Jan 2, 2021 at 6:07

Going back to the 'Wireless World' answer above, it's a letter ot the editor, page 59, April 1982 issue of Wireless World (volume 88). The rest of the letter says:

... but where repairs or replacement would be relatively straightforward. SNAFU became widely used in many situations during the war, but strangely the other code words were rarely used or were unknown. It would be a pity if this bit of folk lore was lost.

C. H. Banthorpe Northwood Middlesex


Here is an individual claiming that he invented the term, which allegedly arose from a coding machine that converted text into groups of five letters, one of which was SNAFU, and he entertained himself by turning then into initialisms


I can't really vouch for the story, but the M209 converter it mentions appears to be genuine which gives it some credibility.



As for SNAFU uses antedating the OED: I assume that a number of coined words do not immediately find their way into print, some for quite a while. Telegraphers, then, may indeed have invented the term--although the sardonic irony of "normal" equated with "all fouled/flubbed/fucked/etc. up" seems more aligned with the general worldview of WWII G.I.s!--and SNAFU just hung "in the air" until 1941.

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