In an email to my new employer's HR department about a payroll problem, I started to type "there seems to be a snafu in my pay". However, I then reflected on what (I understand) "snafu" originally stood for (situation normal, all f****d up). However, the term seems to have worked its way into somewhat broad acceptance. So, has "snafu" either become an acceptable term independent of its original meaning, or do most people not know what it is short for, or should I just avoid it?

Edit about the use of the term: There have been a few statements about how this particular use of snafu doesn't fit the term; i.e. that this is a single occurrence, but that using the term implies the problem to be the normal state. While I see how that contradiction may seem to exist, it's my observation (and that of others, including other statements in response to this question) that the term is usually used in response to a particular incident. While there is (obviously) room for misunderstanding I think the "situation normal" part of the term comes more from a view point that life/the universe/everything is messed up, and this single event is just one example of it.

  • 2
    Regardless if it's acceptable or not, it's just not used correctly. Unless he's trying to say, that payroll is "messed up, as usually".
    – vartec
    Nov 27, 2012 at 11:43
  • if you are hesitating about whether you should use it then you probably shouldn't
    – user1544
    Nov 28, 2012 at 19:06

4 Answers 4


I'd skip it for clarity. "Snafu" is certainly a common and not vulgar form of expression, at least where I'm from (the US), but it's still slang.

Especially when writing someone new, who you don't have a lot of contact with, go with the clearest, easiest to understand language possible. "Snafu" has a nice ring to it, and it's charmingly informal, but "problem" is clearer and less likely to cause either confusion or offense. You want the problem fixed as quickly as possible, and you don't want language to get in the way.


I tend to steer clear of any kind of slang, jargon or colloquialism when I'm reporting a possible problem by e-mail, unless you know the person very well. You have no control over who will see the e-mail as part of a "forward chain" which can easily lead to trouble.

Snafu is particularly problematic, as it implies that the people making the mistake (in this case, potentially the HR payroll staff) habitually and commonly get things wrong, over and above any swearing.

In my experience, if it is at all possible for someone to take offense at an e-mail, then they probably will, so I wouldn't use it in writing.

As for using "snafu" in conversation - I'd suggest that if you are new in the office, you get a feel for the "swearing threshold" in that workplace before using it. Some environments are more robust than others

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    Good job pointing out that "snafu" could be taken to imply that it is indeed "situation normal" for HR/payroll to be making mistakes. Nov 26, 2012 at 6:18
  • Good points! Thanks. I'm not really new in the office where I actually work, but contractual issues have me with a new employer, who I'm still figuring out.
    – GreenMatt
    Nov 26, 2012 at 14:06
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    +1 for feeling the "swearing threshold" - in some places it's perfectly fine while in others it isn't.
    – MrFox
    Nov 26, 2012 at 15:02
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    @suslik - I worked offshore for a while; the "swearing threshold" was sufficiently robust that I had to "decompress" for a while before visiting family :-)
    – GuyM
    Nov 26, 2012 at 18:28

"SNAFU" is a common and informal word-choice.

Although the origin of the word is vulgar, the current usage is not interpreted as vulgar.

In your case, the usage doesn't necessarily imply that it is routine for HR to make mistakes, but rather that circumstances and complexities which are beyond control might cause some mistakes to have been made.

I think that using "SNAFU" is definitely OK for internal and informal communication and probably even fine for wider usage.

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    Oddly the common accepted meaning of SNAFU seems quite different from it's actual meaning. It's often used for an exceptional situation which is pretty much the opposite of the phase.
    – Rarity
    Nov 26, 2012 at 15:21

I would advise using "fouled up" instead of "snafu" in your original sentence.

My current employer has a lot of prudish people. When I've used "snafu" or "wtf" in emails, I get nastygrams from people in other states and countries who were never on the distribution of the first email. I don't personally consider either of them to be vulgar or inappropriate, but there are dozens of people (out of 15,000-20,000 employees worldwide) who are offended enough to call me out and harangue my boss as well. The moral of this is that you lose control of your email the instant it is sent, and that while the content will be appropriate for the intended recipient, it is likely to be forwarded to some jerk who takes offense at any and every thing.

  • Are you implying that you are using such language in emails to 15000-20000 people? IMHO there is no question that you should not use such language in mass emails.
    – Nicole
    Nov 26, 2012 at 17:59
  • @NickC - once you hit "send", you have no control over whether the message becomes a "mass email"; there have been plenty of embarassing e-mails that have "gone viral" within companies and across the internet
    – GuyM
    Nov 26, 2012 at 18:30
  • @GuyM No arguments there; what I'm getting at is that if you know your email is going out to 15,000 people you are under a different set of rules in the first place.
    – Nicole
    Nov 26, 2012 at 18:32
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    @NickC - I'd say Tangurena was suggesting that if you work in an organisation of that size, it is prudent to treat every e-mail as if it was going to be forwarded on, no matter what the original distribution list.
    – GuyM
    Nov 26, 2012 at 18:39
  • @NickC, no, the messages were to people on my team of 10 people, one of whom forwarded it outside the office, and that recipient forwarded onwards.
    – Tangurena
    Nov 26, 2012 at 21:42

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