"BP" stands for . . . nothing.
That's not social commentary. It's a linguistic fact.
Since the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig back in April, the oil company's name has been variously interpreted as "Big Profits," "Biggest Polluter," "Broken Promises," and "Beyond Patience." All but forgotten is BP's slogan (not its name), "Beyond Petroleum," which was adopted in 2001, the same year that the British Petroleum Company officially renamed itself BP (or, to be precise, BP plc--the British legal abbreviation for "public limited company").
Put another way, BP stands for nothing but itself.
In language studies, we call that an orphaned initialism--an abbreviation that's evolved into a brand name independent of its original meaning.
It's a fairly common practice. Consider AT&T, which years ago dropped its initial connection to the American Telephone & Telegraph Corporation. Or the American TV network CBS, which hasn't stood for the Columbia Broadcasting System since 1974.
More recently, CNN Headline News changed its name to the simpler (some might say vacuous) HLN.
And education has followed the trend. Both SAT and ACT are now orphaned initialisms. Originally known as the Scholastic Achievement Test, the SAT became an Aptitude Test in 1941 and an Assessment Test in 1990. Finally, in 1994, the name was officially changed to SAT (or, in full, SAT Reasoning Test), with the letters signifying nothing. Two years later, American College Testing followed suit and changed the name of its test to ACT.
Occasionally an orphaned initialism is reclaimed. After rebranding itself as KFC in the 1990s, Kentucky Fried Chicken resurrected its original name in 2007.
As for the future of BP--or, more significantly, the future of the Gulf of Mexico--we'll leave it to you to suggest an apt tagline.
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