The Grammarphobia Blog

It takes two to quango

Q: We occasionally indulge in a late-night drink and an episode of Yes, Minister, the BBC sitcom from the 1980s. In the last episode of Season 1, Sir Humphrey says, “It takes two to quango, Minister!” We know you’ll enjoy the pun, but we’re also curious about the usage.

A: The term “quango” began life in the 1970s as an acronym for “quasi nongovernmental organization,” but the usage (like the quango itself) has evolved since then, especially in the UK, where the acronym is chiefly seen.

The full expression was apparently coined a half-century ago by Alan Pifer, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1967 annual report of the charitable corporation:

“In recent years there has appeared on the American scene a new genus of organization which represents a noteworthy experiment in the art of government,” Pifer says in his president’s report, later adding, “We may call it the quasi nongovernmental organization.”

In an Aug. 24, 1987, letter to the New York Times, Pifer credited Anthony Barker, a British political scientist, with coining the acronym. He said Barker, a participant at Anglo-American conferences in 1969 and 1971 about such enterprises, “took my term ‘quasi nongovernmental organization,’ which all of us found cumbersome, and turned it into the acronym ‘quango.’ ”

In Quangos in Britain, a 1982 book that Barker edited, he writes, “This was around 1970, when I invented this near-acronym from an American term ‘quasi-non-governmental organisation.’ ” (From the appendix, “Quango: a word and a campaign.” Baker also mentions this in the preface.)

The OED says the “coinage of the acronym is frequently attributed to A. Barker of the University of Essex,” though its earliest written example for the usage is by another British political scientist, Christopher Hood.

In “The Rise and Rise of the British Quango,” a paper published in the Aug. 16, 1973, issue of the British weekly magazine New Society, Hood writes: “It was the Americans who first drew attention to the importance of what they have labelled the ‘grants economy,’ the ‘contract state’ and the ‘quasi-non-government organisation’ (Quango).”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes “quango” as a chiefly British “acronym, originally [from] the initial letters of quasi non-governmental organization … but in later use also frequently reinterpreted as [from] the initial letters of either quasi-autonomous non-government(al) organization or quasi-autonomous national government(al) organization.” (We’ve underlined the OED’s italics to make them more readable.)

Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary that focuses on contemporary usage, says “quango” is now a derogatory British noun for a “semipublic administrative body outside the civil service but receiving financial support from the government, which makes senior appointments to it.” Here’s one of its examples: “Their frustrations and ire were directed at a dithering Government and bungling quangos, not those who promote the sport in this country.”

Because of this negative view in the UK, some well-known organizations are defensive about the term. The British Broadcasting Corporation, which is often called a quango, has this to say in an FAQ about such semi-public bodies:

“There is nothing controversial about the concept of quangos—they have been around for a long time. Some of Britain’s best-known organisations are classified as quangos, including national galleries and museums, bodies such as the Forestry Commission and the British Council and, according to some groups, the BBC. The problem, according to politicians of all persuasions who are always threatening to axe them, is the sheer number and how much they cost to run.”

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