What is the “amber” in AMBER Alert? Plus, the origin of “kidnap”


The media is filled with reports of missing children. The term “AMBER Alert” has become synonymous with these tragedies, but the story behind the name “Amber” is worth repeating.

First, the basics. In the suspected kidnapping of a child, an AMBER Alert is issued. This urgent bulletin is voluntarily issued through several agencies within the United States and abroad. The hope behind an AMBER Alert is that the more people who are aware of a possibly abducted child, the quicker the child will be found and returned home.

(By the way, what’s the etymology of kidnap? The word is likely a compound of kid, meaning “child,” and nap, which is a variant of the word “nab,” and that it originally referred to children who were abducted and forced to work as servants in the American colonies. In an alternate etymology, the word is a back-formation of kidnapper. A napper is a thief.)

AMBER is a backronym for “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response;” it was originally named for Amber Hagerman. In 1996, the 9-year-old was tragically kidnapped and murdered in Texas. The murder shocked the small community where Amber lived, and radio stations and local authorities responded by creating an emergency bulletin system that was eventually adopted nationwide.

Amber” is also a pale yellow, sometimes reddish or brownish, fossil resin of vegetable origin, used for making jewelry and other purposes. It also describes the pale yellow color (yellow traffic lights are considered amber.)

Other states have alternate alert names that memorialize murdered children. For example, in Hawaii, it is called the Maile Amber Alert. Maile was a first grader who was abducted and brutally killed in Kailua, Hawaii in 1985.

On the topic of criminal justice, do you know the difference between a charge, a sentence, and a conviction? We offer an explanation in the context of a recent controversial trial, here.

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