Backronym of the month

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DARPA's AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY (ANCILLARY) wins my vote for the backronym of the month — though some may feel that it's unfair to pick some medial and final letters while leaving out some initial ones.

And the backronymic goal of ancillary may seem underwhelming, given the glosses in Wiktionary ("Subordinate; secondary; auxiliary" as an adjective; "Something that serves an ancillary function, such as an easel for a painter" as a noun), or in Merriam-Webster (apparently only as an adjective: "SUBORDINATE, SUBSIDIARY; AUXILIARY, SUPPLEMENTARY").

The authors presumably had in mind the military sense of ancillaries or ancillary forces. The term auxiliary seems to be more commonly used in that sense — in the NOW corpus, "auxiliary forces" occurs 240 times vs. 4 for "ancillary forces". But (at least for me) auxiliary has a slightly negative connotation that ancillary mostly lacks.

What ancillary brings to mind for me is Ann Leckie's brilliant series of sci-fi novels (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy), in which ancillary are "human units" animated by a warship's AI, sometimes thousands at a time. As the first novel's blurb explains:

Once, she was the Justice of Toren — a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

Leckie's novels were popular enough, come to think of it, that they might have inspired the DARPA program's name, even though the goal is "a plane that can launch from ship flight decks and small austere land locations in adverse weather without launch and recovery equipment typically needed for these systems".

For more about the novels, see "'She was probably male'", 4/6/2014, and "Alien encounter", 10/20/2015.



  1. mg said,

    September 11, 2022 @ 12:29 pm

    I, too, immediately thought of Leckie's books, which explore a variety of areas so well. Thanks for the reminder that it's time to go reread them.

  2. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 20, 2022 @ 1:55 am

    To me, "ancillary" sounds less dignified than "auxiliary", perhaps because whereas I associated the latter with the relatively high-status auxiliaries of the Roman army, the former makes me think of a slave.

  3. john burke said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 1:15 am

    I first encountered "ancilla" 65 or so years ago in the text of Bach's "Magnificat," from the Gospel According to Luke: "Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae," or in the King James Version "he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden." As a result it still sort of suggests "handmaiden" to me.

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