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What is a Snafu?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A snafu is a chaotic or confused situation, or an action which leads to such a situation. For example, if a bookstore forgets to order a major book in time for its release date, it might be considered a snafu. Essentially, a snafu is a mess which requires some effort to clean up, and which can turn into a public relations disaster if news of the snafu is allowed to spread.

This term is part of a colorful family of acronyms which emerged in the United States military in the Second World War. The military is immensely fond of using acronyms, often creating clever titles for things which generate lengthy acronyms which actually spell something, like Pesticide Evaluation Summary Tabulation System (PESTS). Members of the military have been coining their own acronyms to go along with official ones for centuries, with most of these acronyms reflecting perceived foul-ups on the part of the military, and expressing general frustration with the conditions in the military.

”Snafu” is an excellent example of such an acronym. It stands for “situation normal: all fouled up,” and it appears to have emerged around 1940, reaching widespread use by 1944. The term reflects the often chaotic organization of the military during the Second World War, as the United States attempted to win a war on two fronts while moving massive amounts of personnel and equipment. Sometimes, mistakes in offices far from the home front led to colossal snafus, like the failure to include rations in a shipment, or ordering the wrong size ammunition for guns.

Typically, a snafu is the result of an honest mistake or error, although that isn't much consolation to the victims of the snafu, or those who need to clean it up. Snafus can also be caused by factors out of human control, like problems with computer systems, or poor weather conditions which hinder plans for on-time delivery of people or supportive equipment. Snafus can also be created through policy decisions, especially when those decisions are made by people who are isolated from the battlefield.

Although this term originated in the military, it has since spread widely into the American populace, along with a variety of other variations, such as “fubar,” for “fouled up beyond all recognition.” While snafus in the civilian world may not result in as much chaos and potential danger as those in the military, they can still be extremely frustrating, and potentially costly to deal with.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By aLFredo — On Sep 21, 2011

I had no idea that this was an acronym (what a fun fact)! However, the acronym fact makes the spelling of the word make more sense - with the fact that snafu ends in a "u" and so few, if any, words end in a "u," I always thought snafu was a word from a different language.

Just as the article said, a snafu is a result from an honest mistake or error, but I still hate it when I make a snafu. So I appreciate those sharing their snafus in their comments.

I think @MrMoody's description of the snafu of asking a non-pregnant person when their baby is due is unfortunately quite common. My typical snafu is asking someone how their boyfriend or girlfriend is doing, when in actuality they had broken up!

It seems I am out of the loop more often than I am in the loop!

By indemnifyme — On Sep 21, 2011

@KaBoom - I'm often confused by military acronyms myself. My boyfriend is in the Army Reserves, and sometimes when he says something army related I'm like "huh?"

I'm pretty familiar with the term snafu though. At the office I used to work at, we had a snafu pretty much every day! That place was so poorly organized it's a wonder that it's even still in business.

One small example was our scheduling. My boss once made a mistake in the scheduling and no one was on schedule to open up the office for the entire week. He ended up having to do it because everyone else had planned their week around the schedule he gave them! And of course, he was late several days in a row, which really angered some of our early morning customers. What a snafu!

By KaBoom — On Sep 20, 2011

Ah, those military acronyms! My step father was in the Coast Guard and he is always confusing my sister and I with all of his acronyms.

He and my mother didn't get married til I was 22, so it's not like I grew up in a military family! If I had, I would probably know what he was talking about.

Either way, I know the military loves acronyms, so I'm not at all surprised that the term "snafu" originated with the military. It seems the military is a bit better organized that they were in World War II, but my step father assures me that snafu's do still happen!

By David09 — On Sep 20, 2011

@MrMoody - That’s awful. I don’t have those kinds of stories to tell, although I’ve had my share of messing things up.

I once worked as a software developer for a small call center company that also did some outsourcing for local telecommunications firms. I helped refine an application that tabulated phone call volume for these telecommunications firms. We billed on the basis of that volume, so it was important that the application become as accurate as possible.

Well, I made it so “accurate” that it turned out we were capturing nearly double the volume as before. Thus, we were billing the firms for more money. After several months, they gave us a call.

Their own internal analysis showed that we were over billing in terms of actual usage. When I double checked my program, it turned out that there was a bug that doubled the call volume. We barely avoided a lawsuit.

By MrMoody — On Sep 19, 2011

There are many situations in life of which we might all be embarrassed in one way or another.

Sometimes you call them a snafu; at other times you call them a faux pas, or a social blunder.

My friend told me this story of how he had a habit of going up to people and offering them compliments. Now this is not a bad thing, if you know what you’re talking about. But if you don’t, you’ll have egg in your face in short order.

He went up to this lady, saw that she was a bit plump, and said to her, “You look so beautiful! When is the baby due?” Well, there was no baby. She wasn’t pregnant; she was just, as I said, a bit plump.

It’s hard to recover from something like that. I'm glad I'm a little more quiet than he is.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 19, 2011

One of the best days of my life really made my worst snafu special. I was getting ready for my wedding day and I ended up forgetting the rings at home. I couldn't believe that I made such a huge mistake on such an important day.

My parents ended up letting us use their rings for the ceremony and pictures, because it was a few hours drive back to get our own. It really didn't ruin our special day, but it was one snafu that certainly ended up garnering a lot of attention. My parents will never let me forget about that.

By letshearit — On Sep 18, 2011

When I was in college I had quite the private snafu with a girlfriend. I was a bit of a flirting player back in the day and ended up hitting on my girlfriend's roommate without knowing it! It was completely embarrassing, and of course I felt like a total heel. My girlfriend ended up dumping me over it all, even though I would never have actually cheated.

Now that I am much older and wiser I make sure that I don't make any snafus that would hurt the people around me. I don't want to embarrass myself either, which is a pretty good deterrent for most ungentlemanly behavior.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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