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Richard Nordquist

What Does "BP" Stand For?

By June 2, 2010

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"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.

More About Letters:


June 2, 2010 at 6:58 am
(1) Austen says:

Bush’s Provision

June 2, 2010 at 7:08 am
(2) Anne Morris says:

Barack’s Problem

June 2, 2010 at 3:40 pm
(3) Dave says:

Bloody Pathetic!

June 2, 2010 at 4:39 pm
(4) gadzooks says:

Boiling Point

Better Pray

June 2, 2010 at 7:33 pm
(5) Sylvia M. says:

Birds Perish

Buttheads Profit

Bye Planet

June 3, 2010 at 3:57 pm
(6) Joel Z. says:

BP stands for Bi-Partisan
Thats how we got where we are now.

June 7, 2010 at 10:38 am
(7) jimlarson says:

Butt Plug

June 7, 2010 at 11:08 am
(8) Carol Y says:

BP=Blood Pressure. At this point it is elevated

June 7, 2010 at 4:47 pm
(9) Fatma Najar says:

Bloody Petrol

June 7, 2010 at 11:05 pm
(10) Roy Latham says:

There are quite a few of these. FMC was once Food Machinery Corporation, but at some point they decided that didn’t fit a company that also made armored vehicles for the military. NCR left behind National Cash Register. TRW was once Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge.

It seems the idea in many cases is to have a name that implies nothing about what the company does, so they can diversify without further name change.

June 8, 2010 at 12:13 am
(11) Bonner says:

Am I dreaming, or did BP, in a PC move many years ago, change the original meaning of BP to Bahrain Petroleum; or was the latter a different company? If BP did so change, it might, at the time, have been known as Brand Politic.

June 10, 2010 at 11:54 pm
(12) Darkenwulf says:

Put Nothing Bold. All of us know their voices outside are that which speak nothing. All those insignificant voices are but mere questions in our lives. They speak of polutions but most of us know the real truth. When you’re finished,l let us rape, pillage, and plunder what remains of British Petroleum. They never paid for it and we have paid for it in spades.

June 17, 2010 at 1:47 pm
(13) Wendy Low says:

I did a double-take on the clever redesign of the BP logo. where did you get that, Mr. Nordquist?


June 17, 2010 at 5:58 pm
(14) grammar says:


That oily rendition of the BP logo was contributed by a reader. Thank you, Erin!


August 17, 2010 at 5:18 am
(15) Rach says:


February 21, 2012 at 5:10 pm
(16) Totoro says:

Busted pipeline

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