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.