The term “AMBER Alert” has become synonymous with stories of missing children. So who is Amber? And why is her name blasted out to cellphones and on highway signs every time police need our help locating a child in danger?
What is an AMBER Alert?
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.
AMBER is what linguists call a backronym, an existing word turned into an acronym by creating an apt phrase whose initial letters match the word, as to help remember it or offer a theory of its origin. In this case, AMBER has come to stand for “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response.” It was originally named for a 9-year-old named Amber Hagerman who was tragically kidnapped and murdered in Texas in 1996. 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.
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.
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.