There are no universal standards of the multiple names for such abbreviations and of their orthographic styling. In English and most other languages, such abbreviations historically had limited use, but they became much more common in the 20th century. Acronyms are a type of word formation process, and they are viewed as a subtype of blending.
Whereas an abbreviation may be any type of shortened form, such as words with the middle omitted (for example, Rd for road or Dr for Doctor), an acronym is a word formed from the first letter or first few letters of each word in a phrase (such as sonar, created from sound navigation and ranging). Attestations for Akronym in German are known from 1921, and for acronym in English from 1940.
Although the word acronym is often used to refer to any abbreviation formed from initial letters, some dictionaries and usage commentators define acronym to mean an abbreviation that is pronounced as a word, in contrast to an initialism (or alphabetism)—an abbreviation formed from a string of initials (and possibly pronounced as individual letters). Some dictionaries include additional senses equating acronym with initialism. The distinction, when made, hinges on whether the abbreviation is pronounced as a word or as a string of individual letters. Examples in reference works that make the distinction include NATO /ˈneɪtoʊ/, scuba /ˈskuːbə/, and radar /ˈreɪdɑːr/ for acronyms; and FBI /ˌɛfˌbiːˈaɪ/, CRT /ˌsiːˌɑːrˈtiː/, and HTML /ˌeɪtʃˌtiːˌɛmˈɛl/ for initialisms. The rest of this article uses acronym for both types of abbreviation.
The distinction is not well-maintained. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "A number of commentators ... believe that acronyms can be differentiated from other abbreviations in being pronounceable as words. Dictionaries, however, do not make this distinction because writers in general do not. ... Initialism, an older word than acronym, seems to be too little known to the general public to serve as the customary term standing in contrast with acronym in a narrow sense." About the use of acronym to only mean those pronounced as words, Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd ed.) states: "The limitations of the term being not widely known to the general public, acronym is also often applied to abbreviations that are familiar but are not pronounceable as words. ... Such terms are also called initialisms."
A clearer distinction has also been drawn, by Pyles & Algeo (1970), who divided acronyms as a general category into word acronyms pronounced as words, and initialisms sounded out as letters.
There is no special term for abbreviations whose pronunciation involves the combination of letter names and words or word-like pronunciations of strings of letters, such as JPEG /ˈdʒeɪpɛɡ/ and MS-DOS /ˌɛmɛsˈdɒs/. There is also some disagreement as to what to call abbreviations that some speakers pronounce as letters and others pronounce as a word. For example, the terms URL and IRA can be pronounced as individual letters: /ˌjuːˌɑːrˈɛl/ and /ˌaɪˌɑːrˈeɪ/, respectively; or as a single word: /ɜːrl/ and /ˈaɪrə/, respectively.
The spelled-out form of an acronym or initialism (that is, what it stands for) is called its expansion.
Comparing a few examples of each type
- Pronounced as a word, containing only initial letters
- Pronounced as a word, containing a mixture of initial and non-initial letters
- Pronounced as a string of letters, containing syllable-initial but not necessarily word-initial letters
- Pronounced as a word or as a string of letters, depending on speaker or context
- Pronounced as a combination of spelling out and a word
- CD-ROM: (cee-dee-[rɒm]) Compact Disc read-only memory
- IUPAC: (i-u-[pæk]) International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry
- JPEG: (jay-[pɛɡ]) Joint Photographic Experts Group
- Windows ME: ('Windows em-ee'): Windows Millennium Edition. The ME in Windows ME can be pronounced as an initialism or read as 'Me'.
- SFMOMA: (ess-ef-[moʊmə]) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Pronounced only as a string of letters
- Pronounced as a string of letters, but with a shortcut
- IEEE: (I triple-E) Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
- NAACP: (N double-A C P) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
- NCAA: (N C double-A or N C two-A or N C A A) National Collegiate Athletic Association
- Shortcut incorporated into name
- 3M: (three M) originally Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company
- (ISC)²: (ISC squared) International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium
- W3C: (W-three C) World Wide Web Consortium
- C4ISTAR: (C-four I star) Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance
- Multi-layered acronyms
- NAC Breda: (Dutch football club) NOAD ADVENDO Combinatie ("NOAD ADVENDO Combination"),
formed by the 1912 merger of two clubs from Breda:
(Nooit Opgeven Altijd Doorgaan "Never give up, always persevere")
(Aangenaam Door Vermaak En Nuttig Door Ontspanning "Pleasant by entertainment and useful by relaxation")
- GAIM (former name of Pidgin): GTK+ AOL Instant Messenger
- GIMP: GNU Image Manipulation Program
- VHDL: VHSIC hardware description language, where VHSIC stands for very-high-speed integrated circuit.
- NAC Breda: (Dutch football club) NOAD ADVENDO Combinatie ("NOAD ADVENDO Combination"),
- Recursive acronyms, in which the abbreviation refers to itself
- Pseudo-acronyms, which consist of a sequence of characters that, when pronounced as intended, invoke other, longer words with less typing. This makes them gramograms.
- Abbreviations whose last abbreviated word is often redundantly included anyway
- Pronounced as a word, containing letters as a word in itself
- PAYGO: pay-as-you-go
Historical and current use
Acronymy, like retronymy, is a linguistic process that has existed throughout history but for which there was little to no naming, conscious attention, or systematic analysis until relatively recent times. Like retronymy, it became much more common in the 20th century than it had formerly been.
Ancient examples of acronymy (regardless of whether there was metalanguage at the time to describe it) include the following:
- Acronyms were used in Rome before the Christian era. For example, the official name for the Roman Empire, and the Republic before it, was abbreviated as SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus). Inscriptions dating from antiquity, both on stone and on coins, use a lot of abbreviations and acronyms to save room and work. For example, Roman first names, of which there was only a small set, were almost always abbreviated. Common terms were abbreviated too, such as writing just "F" for filius, meaning "son of", a very common part of memorial inscriptions mentioning people. Grammatical markers were abbreviated or left out entirely if they could be inferred from the rest of the text.
- So-called nomina sacra were used in many Greek biblical manuscripts. The common words "God" (Θεός), "Jesus" (Ιησούς), "Christ" (Χριστός), and some others, would be abbreviated by their first and last letters, marked with an overline. This was just one of many kinds of conventional scribal abbreviation, used to reduce the time-consuming workload of the scribe and save on valuable writing materials. The same convention is still commonly used in the inscriptions on religious icons and the stamps used to mark the eucharistic bread in Eastern Churches.
- The early Christians in Rome, most of whom were Greek rather than Latin speakers, used the image of a fish as a symbol for Jesus in part because of an acronym—fish in Greek is ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ), which was said to stand for Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ (Iesous CHristos THeou hUios Soter: "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior"). This interpretation dates from the 2nd and 3rd centuries and is preserved in the catacombs of Rome. And for centuries, the Church has used the inscription INRI over the crucifix, which stands for the Latin Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum ("Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews").
- The Hebrew language has a long history of formation of acronyms pronounced as words, stretching back many centuries. The Hebrew Bible ("Old Testament") is known as "Tanakh", an acronym composed from the Hebrew initial letters of its three major sections: Torah (five books of Moses), Nevi'im (prophets), and K'tuvim (writings). Many rabbinical figures from the Middle Ages onward are referred to in rabbinical literature by their pronounced acronyms, such as Rambam and Rashi from the initial letters of their full Hebrew names: Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon and Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki.
During the mid- to late-19th century, an acronym-disseminating trend spread through the American and European business communities: abbreviating corporation names in places where space was limited for writing—such as on the sides of railroad cars (e.g., Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad → RF&P); on the sides of barrels and crates; and on ticker tape and in the small-print newspaper stock listings that got their data from it (e.g., American Telephone and Telegraph Company → AT&T). Some well-known commercial examples dating from the 1890s through 1920s include Nabisco (National Biscuit Company), Esso (from S.O., from Standard Oil), and Sunoco (Sun Oil Company).
Another driver for the adoption of acronyms was modern warfare with its many highly technical terms. While there is no recorded use of military acronyms in documents dating from the American Civil War (acronyms such as ANV for "Army of Northern Virginia" post-date the war itself), they had become somewhat common in World War I and were very much a part even of the vernacular language of the soldiers during World War II, who themselves were referred to as G.I.s.
The widespread, frequent use of acronyms across the whole range of registers is a relatively new linguistic phenomenon in most languages, becoming increasingly evident since the mid-20th century. As literacy rates rose, and as advances in science and technology brought with them a constant stream of new (and sometimes more complex) terms and concepts, the practice of abbreviating terms became increasingly convenient. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records the first printed use of the word initialism as occurring in 1899, but it did not come into general use until 1965, well after acronym had become common.
By 1943, the term acronym had been used in English to recognize abbreviations (and contractions of phrases) that were pronounced as words. (It was formed from the Greek words ἄκρος, akros, "topmost, extreme" and ὄνομα, onoma, "name.") For example, the army offense of being absent without official leave was abbreviated to "A.W.O.L." in reports, but when pronounced as a word (awol), it became an acronym. While initial letters are commonly used to form an acronym, the original definition was "a word made from the initial letters or syllables of other words", for example UNIVAC from UNIVersal Automatic Computer.
In English, acronyms pronounced as words may be a 20th-century phenomenon. Linguist David Wilton in Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends claims that "forming words from acronyms is a distinctly twentieth- (and now twenty-first-) century phenomenon. There is only one known pre-twentieth-century [English] word with an acronymic origin and it was in vogue for only a short time in 1886. The word is colinderies or colinda, an acronym for the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in London in that year." However, although acronymic words seem not to have been employed in general vocabulary before the 20th century (as Wilton points out), the concept of their formation is treated as effortlessly understood (and evidently not novel) in a Poe story of the 1830s, "How to Write a Blackwood Article", which includes the contrived acronym P.R.E.T.T.Y.B.L.U.E.B.A.T.C.H.
Early examples in English
The use of Latin and Neo-Latin terms in vernaculars has been pan-European and predates modern English. Some examples of acronyms in this class are:
- A.M. (from Latin ante meridiem, "before noon") and P.M. (from Latin post meridiem, "after noon")
- A.D. (from Latin Anno Domini, "in the year of our Lord"), whose complement in English, B.C. [Before Christ], is English-sourced
- O.K., a term of disputed origin, dating back at least to the early 19th century, now used around the world
The earliest example of a word derived from an acronym listed by the OED is "abjud" (now "abjad"), formed from the original first four letters of the Arabic alphabet in the late 18th century. Some acrostics predate this, however, such as the Restoration witticism arranging the names of some members of Charles II's Committee for Foreign Affairs to produce the "CABAL" ministry.
Acronyms are used most often to abbreviate names of organizations and long or frequently referenced terms. The armed forces and government agencies frequently employ acronyms; some well-known examples from the United States are among the "alphabet agencies" (also jokingly referred to as "alphabet soup") created by Franklin D. Roosevelt (also of course known as FDR) under the New Deal. Business and industry also are prolific coiners of acronyms. The rapid advance of science and technology in recent centuries seems to be an underlying force driving the usage, as new inventions and concepts with multiword names create a demand for shorter, more manageable names. One representative example, from the U.S. Navy, is COMCRUDESPAC, which stands for commander, cruisers destroyers Pacific; it's also seen as "ComCruDesPac". "YABA-compatible" (where YABA stands for "yet another bloody acronym") is used to mean that a term's acronym can be pronounced but is not an offensive word, e.g., "When choosing a new name, be sure it is 'YABA-compatible'."
Acronym use has been further popularized by text messaging on mobile phones with Short Message Systems (SMS). To fit messages into the 160-character SMS limit, acronyms such as "GF" (girlfriend), "LOL" (laughing out loud), and "DL" (download or down low) have become popular. Some prescriptivists disdain texting acronyms and abbreviations as decreasing clarity, or as failure to use "pure" or "proper" English. Others point out that language change has happened for thousands of years, and argue that it should be embraced as inevitable, or as innovation that adapts the language to changing circumstances. In this view, the modern practice is just as legitimate as those in "proper" English of the current generation of speakers, such as the abbreviation of corporation names in places with limited writing space (e.g., ticker tape, newspaper column inches).
Aids to learning the expansion without leaving a document
In formal writing for a broad audience, the expansion is typically given at the first occurrence of the acronym within a given text, for the benefit of those readers who do not know what it stands for. The capitalization of the original term is independent of it being acronymized, being lowercase for a common noun such as frequently asked questions (FAQ) but uppercase for a proper noun such as the United Nations (UN) (as explained at Case > Casing of expansions).
In addition to expansion at first use, some publications also have a key listing all acronyms used therein and what their expansions are. This is a convenience to readers for two reasons. The first is that if they are not reading the entire publication sequentially (which is a common mode of reading), then they may encounter an acronym without having seen its expansion. Having a key at the start or end of the publication obviates skimming over the text searching for an earlier use to find the expansion. (This is especially important in the print medium, where no search utility. is available.) The second reason for the key feature is its pedagogical value in educational works such as textbooks. It gives students a way to review the meanings of the acronyms introduced in a chapter after they have done the line-by-line reading, and also a way to quiz themselves on the meanings (by covering up the expansion column and recalling the expansions from memory, then checking their answers by uncovering.) In addition, this feature enables readers possessing knowledge of the abbreviations not to have to encounter expansions (redundant to such readers).
Expansion at first use and the abbreviation-key feature are aids to the reader that originated in the print era, and they are equally useful in print and online. In addition, the online medium offers yet more aids, such as tooltips, hyperlinks, and rapid search via search engine technology.
Acronyms often occur in jargon. An acronym may have different meanings in different areas of industry, writing, and scholarship. The general reason for this is convenience and succinctness for specialists, although it has led some to obfuscate the meaning either intentionally, to deter those without such domain-specific knowledge, or unintentionally, by creating an acronym that already existed.
The medical literature has been struggling to control the proliferation of acronyms as their use has evolved from aiding communication to hindering it. This has become such a problem that it is even evaluated at the level of medical academies such as the American Academy of Dermatology.
Acronyms are often taught as mnemonic devices, for example in physics the colors of the visible spectrum are ROY G. BIV (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet). They are also used as mental checklists, for example in aviation: GUMPS, which is Gas-Undercarriage-Mixture-Propeller-Seatbelts. Other examples of mnemonic acronyms include CAN SLIM, and PAVPANIC as well as PEMDAS.
Acronyms as legendary etymology
It is not uncommon for acronyms to be cited in a kind of false etymology, called a folk etymology, for a word. Such etymologies persist in popular culture but have no factual basis in historical linguistics, and are examples of language-related urban legends. For example, cop is commonly cited as being derived, it is presumed, from "constable on patrol," and posh from "port out, starboard home". With some of these specious expansions, the "belief" that the etymology is acronymic has clearly been tongue-in-cheek among many citers, as with "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" for golf, although many other (more credulous) people have uncritically taken it for fact. Taboo words in particular commonly have such false etymologies: shit from "ship/store high in transit" or "special high-intensity training" and fuck from "for unlawful carnal knowledge", or "fornication under consent/command of the king".
Showing the ellipsis of letters
In English, abbreviations have traditionally been written with a full stop/period/point in place of the deleted part to show the ellipsis of letters – although the colon and apostrophe have also had this role – and with a space after full stops (e.g. "A. D."). In the case of most acronyms, each letter is an abbreviation of a separate word and, in theory, should get its own termination mark. Such punctuation is diminishing with the belief that the presence of all-capital letters is sufficient to indicate that the word is an abbreviation.
Some influential style guides, such as that of the BBC, no longer require punctuation to show ellipsis; some even proscribe it. Larry Trask, American author of The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, states categorically that, in British English, "this tiresome and unnecessary practice is now obsolete".
Pronunciation-dependent style and periods
Nevertheless, some influential style guides, many of them American, still require periods in certain instances. For example, The New York Times' guide recommends following each segment with a period when the letters are pronounced individually, as in K.G.B., but not when pronounced as a word, as in NATO. The logic of this style is that the pronunciation is reflected graphically by the punctuation scheme.
When a multiple-letter abbreviation is formed from a single word, periods are in general not used, although they may be common in informal usage. TV, for example, may stand for a single word (television or transvestite, for instance), and is in general spelled without punctuation (except in the plural). Although PS stands for the single word postscript (or the Latin postscriptum), it is often spelled with periods (P.S.).
The slash ('/', or solidus) is sometimes used to separate the letters in a two-letter acronym, as in N/A (not applicable, not available), c/o (care of) and w/o (without).
Inconveniently long words used frequently in related contexts can be represented according to their letter count. For example, i18n abbreviates internationalization, a computer-science term for adapting software for worldwide use. The 18 represents the 18 letters that come between the first and the last in internationalization. Localization can be abbreviated l10n, multilingualization m17n, and accessibility a11y. In addition to the use of a specific number replacing that many letters, the more general "x" can be used to replace an unspecified number of letters. Examples include Crxn for crystallization and the series familiar to physicians for history, diagnosis, and treatment (hx, dx, tx).
Representing plurals and possessives
There is a question about how to pluralize acronyms. Often a writer will add an 's' following an apostrophe, as in "PC's". However, Kate Turabian, writing about style in academic writings, allows for an apostrophe to form plural acronyms "only when an abbreviation contains internal periods or both capital and lowercase letters". Turabian would therefore prefer "DVDs" and "URLs" and "Ph.D.'s". The Modern Language Association and American Psychological Association prohibit apostrophes from being used to pluralize acronyms regardless of periods (so "compact discs" would be "CDs" or "C.D.s"), whereas the New York Times style guide requires an apostrophe when pluralizing all abbreviations regardless of periods (preferring "PC's, TV's and VCR's").
Possessive plurals that also include apostrophes for mere pluralization and periods appear especially complex: for example, the C.D.'s' labels (the labels of the compact discs). In some instances, however, an apostrophe may increase clarity: for example, if the final letter of an abbreviation is S, as in SOS's (although abbreviations ending with S can also take -es, e.g. SOSes), or when pluralizing an abbreviation that has periods.
A particularly rich source of options arises when the plural of an acronym would normally be indicated in a word other than the final word if spelled out in full. A classic example is Member of Parliament, which in plural is Members of Parliament. It is possible then to abbreviate this as M's P. (or similar), as used by former Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley. This usage is less common than forms with s at the end, such as MPs, and may appear dated or pedantic. In common usage, therefore, weapons of mass destruction becomes WMDs, prisoners of war becomes POWs, and runs batted in becomes RBIs.
The argument that acronyms should have no different plural form (for example, "If D can stand for disc, it can also stand for discs") is in general disregarded because of the practicality in distinguishing singulars and plurals. This is not the case, however, when the abbreviation is understood to describe a plural noun already: For example, U.S. is short for United States, but not United State. In this case, the options for making a possessive form of an abbreviation that is already in its plural form without a final s may seem awkward: for example, U.S., U.S.'s, etc. In such instances, possessive abbreviations are often foregone in favor of simple attributive usage (for example, the U.S. economy) or expanding the abbreviation to its full form and then making the possessive (for example, the United States' economy). On the other hand, in speech, the pronunciation United States's sometimes is used.
Abbreviations that come from single, rather than multiple, words—such as TV (television)—are usually pluralized without apostrophes (two TVs); most writers feel that the apostrophe should be reserved for the possessive (the TV's antenna).
In some languages, the convention of doubling the letters in the acronym is used to indicate plural words: for example, the Spanish EE. UU., for Estados Unidos ('United States'). This old convention is still followed for a limited number of English abbreviations, such as SS. for "Saints", pp. for the Latin plural of "pages", paginae, or MSS for "manuscripts". In the case of pp. it derives from the original Latin phrase per procurationem meaning 'through the agency of'; an English translation alternative is particular pages in a book or document: see pp 8-88. .
The most common capitalization scheme seen with acronyms is all-uppercase (all-caps), except for those few that have linguistically taken on an identity as regular words, with the acronymous etymology of the words fading into the background of common knowledge, such as has occurred with the words scuba, laser, and radar—these are known as anacronyms. Anacronyms (note well -acro-) should not be homophonously confused with anachronyms (note well -chron-), which are a type of misnomer.
Small caps are sometimes used to make the run of capital letters seem less jarring to the reader. For example, the style of some American publications, including the Atlantic Monthly and USA Today, is to use small caps for acronyms longer than three letters; thus "U.S." and "FDR" in normal caps, but "nato" in small caps. The acronyms "AD" and "BC" are often smallcapped as well, as in: "From 4004 bc to ad 525".
Words derived from an acronym by affixing are typically expressed in mixed case, so the root acronym is clear. For example, pre-WWII politics, post-NATO world, DNAase. In some cases a derived acronym may also be expressed in mixed case. For example, messenger RNA and transfer RNA become mRNA and tRNA.
Pronunciation-dependent style and case
Some publications choose to capitalize only the first letter of acronyms, reserving all-caps styling for initialisms, writing the pronounced acronyms "Nato" and "Aids" in mixed case, but the initialisms "USA" and "FBI" in all caps. For example, this is the style used in The Guardian, and BBC News typically edits to this style (though its official style guide, dating from 2003, still recommends all-caps). The logic of this style is that the pronunciation is reflected graphically by the capitalization scheme.
Some style manuals also base the letters' case on their number. The New York Times, for example, keeps NATO in all capitals (while several guides in the British press may render it Nato), but uses lower case in UNICEF (from "United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund") because it is more than four letters, and to style it in caps might look ungainly (flirting with the appearance of "shouting capitals").
Numerals and constituent words
While abbreviations typically exclude the initials of short function words (such as "and", "or", "of", or "to"), this is not always the case. (A similar set of words is sometimes left as lowercase in headers and publication titles.) Sometimes function words are included to make a pronounceable acronym, such as CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Sometimes the letters representing these words are written in lower case, such as in the cases of TfL (Transport for London) and LotR (Lord of the Rings); this usually occurs when the acronym represents a multi-word proper noun.
Numbers (both cardinal and ordinal) in names are often represented by digits rather than initial letters: as in 4GL (Fourth generation language) or G77 (Group of 77). Large numbers may use metric prefixes, as with Y2K for "Year 2000" (sometimes written Y2k, because the SI symbol for 1000 is k—not K, which stands for kelvin). Exceptions using initials for numbers include TLA (three-letter acronym/abbreviation) and GoF (Gang of Four). Abbreviations using numbers for other purposes include repetitions, such as W3C ("World Wide Web Consortium") and T3 (Trends, Tips & Tools for Everyday Living); pronunciation, such as B2B ("business to business"); and numeronyms, such as i18n ("internationalization"; 18 represents the 18 letters between the initial i and the final n).
Casing of expansions
Although many authors of expository writing show a predisposition to capitalizing the initials of the expansion for pedagogical emphasis (trying to thrust the reader's attention toward where the letters are coming from), this sometimes conflicts with the convention of English orthography, which reserves capitals in the middle of sentences for proper nouns. Enforcing the general convention, most professional editors case-fold such expansions to their standard orthography when editing manuscripts for publication. The justification is that (1) readers are smart enough to figure out where the letters came from, even without their being capitalized for emphasis, and that (2) common nouns do not take capital initials in standard English orthography. Such house styles also usually disfavor bold or italic font for the initial letters. For example, "the onset of Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)" or "the onset of congestive heart failure (CHF)" if found in an unpublished manuscript would be rewritten as "the onset of congestive heart failure (CHF)" in the final published article when following the AMA Manual of Style.
Changes to (or word play on) the expanded meaning
Some apparent acronyms or other abbreviations do not stand for anything and cannot be expanded to some meaning. Such pseudo-acronyms may be pronunciation-based, such as BBQ (bee-bee-cue), for "barbecue", or K9 (kay-nine) for "canine". Pseudo-acronyms also frequently develop as "orphan initialisms"; an existing acronym is redefined as a non-acronymous name, severing its link to its previous meaning. For example, the letters of the SAT, a US college entrance test originally dubbed "Scholastic Aptitude Test", no longer officially stand for anything.
This is common with companies that want to retain brand recognition while moving away from an outdated image: American Telephone and Telegraph became AT&T, Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC to de-emphasize the role of frying in the preparation of its signature dishes, and British Petroleum became BP. Russia Today has rebranded itself as RT. Genzyme Transgenics Corporation became GTC Biotherapeutics, Inc. in order to reduce perceived corporate risk of sabotage/vandalism by Luddite activists.
Pseudo-acronyms may have advantages in international markets: for example, some national affiliates of International Business Machines are legally incorporated as "IBM" (for example, "IBM Canada") to avoid translating the full name into local languages. Likewise, "UBS" is the name of the merged Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corporation, and "HSBC" has replaced "The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation." Sometimes, companies whose original name gives a clear indication of their place of origin will use acronyms when expanding to foreign markets – for example, Toronto-Dominion Bank continues to operate under the full name in Canada, but its U.S. subsidiary is known as TD Bank, just as Royal Bank of Canada used its full name in Canada (a constitutional monarchy), but its now-defunct U.S. subsidiary was called RBC Bank.
Redundant acronyms and RAS syndrome
Rebranding can lead to redundant acronym syndrome, as when Trustee Savings Bank became TSB Bank, or when Railway Express Agency became REA Express. A few high-tech companies have taken the redundant acronym to the extreme: for example, ISM Information Systems Management Corp. and SHL Systemhouse Ltd. Examples in entertainment include the television shows CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Navy: NCIS ("Navy" was dropped in the second season), where the redundancy was likely designed to educate new viewers as to what the initials stood for. The same reasoning was in evidence when the Royal Bank of Canada's Canadian operations rebranded to RBC Royal Bank, or when Bank of Montreal rebranded their retail banking subsidiary BMO Bank of Montreal.
Another common example is "RAM memory", which is redundant because "RAM" ("random-access memory") includes the initial of the word "memory". "PIN" stands for "personal identification number", obviating the second word in "PIN number"; in this case its retention may be motivated to avoid ambiguity with the homophonous word "pin". Other examples include "ATM machine," "EAB bank," "CableACE Award," "DC Comics," "HIV virus," Microsoft's NT Technology, and the formerly redundant "SAT test," now simply "SAT Reasoning Test"). TNN (The Nashville/National Network) also renamed itself "The New TNN" for a brief interlude.
Sometimes, the initials continue to stand for an expanded meaning, but the original meaning is simply replaced. Some examples:
- DVD was originally an acronym of the unofficial term digital video disk, but is now stated by the DVD Forum as standing for Digital Versatile Disc.
- GAO changed the full form of its name from General Accounting Office to Government Accountability Office.
- GPO (in the United States) changed the full form of its name from Government Printing Office to Government Publishing Office.
- RAID used to mean Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, but is now commonly interpreted as Redundant Array of Independent Disks.
- WWF originally stood for World Wildlife Fund, but now stands for Worldwide Fund for Nature (although the former name is still used in Canada and the United States).
- The UICC, whose initials came from the Romance-language versions of its name (such as French Union Internationale Contre le Cancer, "International Union Against Cancer"), changed the English expansion of its name to Union for International Cancer Control (from International Union Against Cancer) so that the English expansion, too, would correspond to the UICC initials.
A backronym (or bacronym) is a phrase that is constructed "after the fact" from a previously existing word. For example, the novelist and critic Anthony Burgess once proposed that the word "book" ought to stand for "Box Of Organized Knowledge." A classic real-world example of this is the name of the predecessor to the Apple Macintosh, The Apple Lisa, which was said to refer to "Local Integrated Software Architecture", but was actually named after Steve Jobs' daughter, born in 1978.
Acronyms are sometimes contrived, that is, deliberately designed to be especially apt for the thing being named (by having a dual meaning or by borrowing the positive connotations of an existing word). Some examples of contrived acronyms are USA PATRIOT, CAN SPAM, CAPTCHA and ACT UP. The clothing company French Connection began referring to itself as fcuk, standing for "French Connection United Kingdom." The company then created T-shirts and several advertising campaigns that exploit the acronym's similarity to the taboo word "fuck."
The US Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is known for developing contrived acronyms to name projects, including RESURRECT, NIRVANA, and DUDE. In July 2010, Wired Magazine reported that DARPA announced programs to "..transform biology from a descriptive to a predictive field of science" named BATMAN and ROBIN for Biochronicity and Temporal Mechanisms Arising in Nature and Robustness of Biologically-Inspired Networks, a reference to the Batman and Robin comic-book superheroes.
The short-form names of clinical trials and other scientific studies constitute a large class of acronyms that includes many contrived examples, as well as many with a partial rather than complete correspondence of letters to expansion components. These trials tend to have full names that are accurately descriptive of what the trial is about but are thus also too long to serve practically as names within the syntax of a sentence, so a short name is also developed, which can serve as a syntactically useful handle and also provide at least a degree of mnemonic reminder as to the full name. Examples widely known in medicine include the ALLHAT trial (Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial) and the CHARM trial (Candesartan in Heart Failure: Assessment of Reduction in Mortality and Morbidity). The fact that RAS syndrome is often involved, as well as that the letters often don't entirely match, have sometimes been pointed out by annoyed researchers preoccupied by the idea that because the achetypal form of acronyms originated with one-to-one letter matching, there must be some moral impropriety in their ever deviating from that form. However, the raison d'être of clinical trial acronyms, as with gene and protein symbols, is simply to have a syntactically usable and recallable short name to complement the long name that is often syntactically unusable and not memorized. It is useful for the short name to give a reminder of the long name, which supports the reasonable censure of "cutesy" examples that provide little to no hint of it. But beyond that reasonably close correspondence, the short name's chief utility is in functioning cognitively as a name, rather than being a cryptic and forgettable string, albeit faithful to the matching of letters. However, other reasonable critiques have been (1) that it is irresponsible to mention trial acronyms without explaining them at least once by providing the long names somewhere in the document, and (2) that the proliferation of trial acronyms has resulted in ambiguity, such as 3 different trials all called ASPECT, which is another reason why failing to explain them somewhere in the document is irresponsible in scientific communication. At least one study has evaluated the citation impact and other traits of acronym-named trials compared with others, finding both good aspects (mnemonic help, name recall) and potential flaws (connotatively driven bias).
Some acronyms are chosen deliberately to avoid a name considered undesirable: For example, Verliebt in Berlin (ViB), a German telenovela, was first intended to be Alles nur aus Liebe (All for Love), but was changed to avoid the resultant acronym ANAL. Likewise, the Computer Literacy and Internet Technology qualification is known as CLaIT, rather than CLIT. In Canada, the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance (Party) was quickly renamed to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance when its opponents pointed out that its initials spelled CCRAP (pronounced "see crap"). (The satirical magazine Frank had proposed alternatives to CCRAP, namely SSHIT and NSDAP.) Two Irish Institutes of Technology (Galway and Tralee) chose different acronyms from other institutes when they were upgraded from Regional Technical colleges. Tralee RTC became the Institute of Technology Tralee (ITT), as opposed to Tralee Institute of Technology (TIT). Galway RTC became Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), as opposed to Galway Institute of Technology (GIT). The charity sports organization Team in Training is known as "TNT" and not "TIT". Technological Institute of Textile & Sciences is still known as TITS. George Mason University was planning to name their law school the Antonin Scalia School of Law (ASSOL) in honor of the late Antonin Scalia, only to change it to the Antonin Scalia Law School later.
Some examples of macronyms are:
- XHR stands for "XML HTTP Request", in which XML is "eXtensible Markup Language", and HTTP stands for "HyperText Transfer Protocol".
- POWER stands for Performance Optimization With Enhanced RISC, in which RISC stands for Reduced Instruction Set Computing.
- VHDL stands for "VHSIC Hardware Description Language", in which VHSIC stands for "Very High Speed Integrated Circuit".
- XSD stands for "XML Schema Definition", in which XML stands for "eXtensible Markup Language".
- SECS stands for "SEMI equipment communication standard", in which SEMI stands for "Semiconductor equipment manufacturing industries".
- AIM stands for "AOL Instant Messenger", in which AOL stands for "America Online".
- HASP stood for Houston Automatic Spooling Priority, but spooling itself was an acronym – simultaneous peripheral operations on-line
Some macronyms can be multiply nested: the second-order acronym points to another one further down a hierarchy. In an informal competition run by the magazine New Scientist, a fully documented specimen was discovered that may be the most deeply nested of all: RARS is the "Regional ATOVS Retransmission Service"; ATOVS is "Advanced TOVS"; TOVS is "TIROS operational vertical sounder"; and TIROS is "Television infrared observational satellite". Fully expanded, "RARS" might thus become "Regional Advanced Television Infrared Observational Satellite Operational Vertical Sounder Retransmission Service". However, to say that "RARS" stands directly for that string of words, or can be interchanged with it in syntax (in the same way that "CHF" can be usefully interchanged with "congestive heart failure"), is a prescriptive misapprehension rather than a linguistically accurate description; the true nature of such a term is closer to anacronymic than to being interchangeable like simpler acronyms are. The latter are fully reducible in an attempt to "spell everything out and avoid all abbreviations," but the former are irreducible in that respect; they can be annotated with parenthetical explanations, but they cannot be eliminated from speech or writing in any useful or practical way. Just as the words laser and radar function as words in syntax and cognition without a need to focus on their acronymic origins, terms such as "RARS" and "CHA2DS2–VASc score" are irreducible in natural language; if they are purged, the form of language that is left may conform to some imposed rule, but it cannot be described as remaining natural. Similarly, protein and gene nomenclature, which uses symbols extensively, includes such terms as the name of the NACHT protein domain, which reflects the symbols of some proteins that contain the domain—NAIP (NLR family apoptosis inhibitor protein), C2TA (major histocompatibility complex class II transcription activator), HET-E (incompatibility locus protein from Podospora anserine), and TP1 (telomerase-associated protein)—but is not syntactically reducible to them. The name is thus itself more symbol than acronym, and its expansion cannot replace it while preserving its function in natural syntax as a name within a clause clearly parsable by human readers or listeners.
A special type of macronym, the recursive acronym, has letters whose expansion refers back to the macronym itself. One of the earliest examples appears in The Hacker's Dictionary as MUNG, which stands for "MUNG Until No Good".
Some examples of recursive acronyms are:
- GNU stands for "GNU's Not Unix"
- LAME stands for "LAME Ain't an MP3 Encoder"
- PHP stands for "PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor"
- WINE stands for "WINE Is Not an Emulator"
- HURD stands for "HIRD of Unix-replacing daemons", where HIRD itself stands for "HURD of interfaces representing depth" (a "mutually recursive" acronym)
In English language discussions of languages with syllabic or logographic writing systems (such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), "acronyms" describe the short forms that take selected characters from a multi-character word.
For example, in Chinese, "university" (大學/大学, literally "great learning") is usually abbreviated simply as 大 ("great") when used with the name of the institute. So Peking University (北京大学) is commonly shortened to 北大 ( "north-great") by also only taking the first character of Peking, the "northern capital" (北京; Beijing). In some cases, however, other characters than the first can be selected. For example, the local short form of Hong Kong University (香港大學) uses Kong (港大) rather than Hong.
There are also cases where some longer phrases are abbreviated drastically, especially in Chinese politics, where proper nouns were initially translated from Soviet Leninist terms. For instance, the full name of China's highest ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), is "Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China" (中国共产党中央政治局常务委员会). The term then reduced the "Communist Party of China" part of its name through acronyms, then the "Standing Committee" part, again through acronyms, to create "中共中央政治局常委". Alternatively, it omitted the "Communist Party" part altogether, creating "Politburo Standing Committee" (政治局常委会), and eventually just "Standing Committee" (常委会). The PSC's members full designations are "Member of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China" (中国共产党中央政治局常务委员会委员); this was eventually drastically reduced to simply Changwei (常委), with the term Ruchang (入常) used increasingly for officials destined for a future seat on the PSC. In another example, the word "全国人民代表大会" (National People's Congress) can be broken into four parts: "全国" = "the whole nation", "人民" = "people", "代表" = "representatives", "大会" = "conference". Yet, in its short form "人大" (literally "man/people big"), only the first characters from the second and the fourth parts are selected; the first part ("全国") and the third part ("代表") are simply ignored. In describing such abbreviations, the term initialism is inapplicable.
Many proper nouns become shorter and shorter over time. For example, the CCTV New Year's Gala, whose full name is literally read as "China Central Television Spring Festival Joint Celebration Evening Gala" (中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会) was first shortened to "Spring Festival Joint Celebration Evening Gala" (春节联欢晚会), but eventually referred to as simply Chunwan (春晚). Along the same vein, Zhongguo Zhongyang Dianshi Tai (中国中央电视台) was reduced to Yangshi (央视) in the mid-2000s.
Many aspects of academics in Korea follow similar acronym patterns as Chinese, owing to the languages' commonalities, like using the word for "big" or "great" i.e. dae (대), to refer to universities (대학; daehak, literally "great learning" although "big school" is an acceptable alternate). They can be interpreted similar to American university appellations, such as "UPenn" or "Texas Tech."
Some acronyms are shortened forms of the school's name, like how Hongik University (홍익대학교, Hongik Daehakgyo) is shortened to Hongdae (홍대, "Hong, the big [school]" or "Hong-U") Other acronyms can refer to the university's main subject, e.g. Korea National University of Education (한국교원대학교, Hanguk Gyowon Daehakgyo) is shortened to Gyowondae (교원대, "Big Ed." or "Ed.-U"). Other schools use a Koreanized version of their English acronym. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (한국과학기술원, Hanguk Gwahak Gisulwon) is referred to as KAIST (카이스트, Kaiseuteu) in both English and Korean. The 3 most prestigious schools in Korea are known as SKY (스카이, seukai), combining the first letter of their English names (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities). In addition, the College Scholastic Ability Test (대학수학능력시험, Daehak Suhang Neungryeok Siheom) is shortened to Suneung (수능, "S.A.").
The Japanese language makes extensive use of abbreviations, but only some of these are acronyms.
Chinese-based words (Sino-Japanese vocabulary) uses similar acronym formation to Chinese, like Tōdai (東大) for Tōkyō Daigaku (東京大学, Tokyo University). In some cases alternative pronunciations are used, as in Saikyō for 埼京, from Saitama + Tōkyo (埼玉＋東京), rather than Saitō.
Non-Chinese foreign borrowings (gairaigo) are instead frequently abbreviated as clipped compounds, rather than acronyms, using several initial sounds. This is visible in katakana transcriptions of foreign words, but is also found with native words (written in hiragana). For example, the Pokémon media franchise's name originally stood for "pocket monsters" (ポケット·モンスター → ポケモン), which is still the long-form of the name in Japanese, and "wāpuro" stands for "word processor" (ワード·プロセッサー → ワープロ).
To a greater degree than English does, German tends toward acronyms that use initial syllables rather than initial single letters, although it uses many of the latter type as well. Some examples of the syllabic type are Gestapo rather than GSP (for Geheime Staatspolizei, 'secret state police'); Flak rather than FAK (for Fliegerabwehrkanone, anti-aircraft gun); Kripo rather than KP (for Kriminalpolizei, detective division police). The extension of such contraction to a pervasive or whimsical degree has been mockingly labeled Aküfi (for Abkürzungsfimmel, strange habit of abbreviating). Examples of Aküfi include Vokuhila (for vorne kurz, hinten lang, short in the front, long in the back, i.e., a mullet) and the mocking of Adolf Hitler's title as Gröfaz (Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten, Greatest General of all Times).
It is common to take more than just one initial letter from each of the words composing the acronym; regardless of this, the abbreviation sign gershayim ⟨״⟩ is always written between the second-last and last letters of the non-inflected form of the acronym, even if by this it separates letters of the same original word. Examples (keep in mind Hebrew reads right-to-left): ארה״ב (for ארצות הברית, the United States); ברה״מ (for ברית המועצות, the Soviet Union); ראשל״צ (for ראשון לציון, Rishon LeZion); ביה״ס (for בית הספר, the school). An example that takes only the initial letters from its component words is צה״ל (Tzahal, for צבא הגנה לישראל, Israel Defense Forces). In inflected forms the abbreviation sign gershayim remains between the second-last and last letters of the non-inflected form of the acronym (e.g. "report", singular: דו״ח, plural: דו״חות; "squad commander", masculine: מ״כ, feminine: מ״כית).
There is also a widespread use of acronyms in Indonesia in every aspect of social life. For example, the Golkar political party stands for Partai Golongan Karya, Monas stands for "Monumen Nasional" (National Monument), the Angkot public transport stands for "Angkutan Kota" (city public transportation), warnet stands for "warung internet" (internet cafe), and many others. Some acronyms are considered formal (or officially adopted), while many more are considered informal, slang or colloquial.
The capital's metropolitan area (Jakarta and its surrounding satellite regions), Jabodetabek, is another infamous acronym. This stands for Jakarta-Bogor-Depok-Tangerang-Bekasi. Many highways are also named by the acronym method; e.g. Jalan Tol (Toll Road) Jagorawi (Jakarta-Bogor-Ciawi) and Purbaleunyi (Purwakarta-Bandung-Cileunyi), Joglo Semar (Jogja-solo-semarang).
In some languages, especially those that use certain alphabets, many acronyms come from the governmental use, particularly in the military and law enforcement services. The Indonesian military (TNI—Tentara Nasional Indonesia) and Indonesian police (POLRI—Kepolisian Republik Indonesia) are infamous for heavy acronyms use. Examples include the Kopassus (Komando Pasukan Khusus; Special Forces Command), Kopaska (Komando Pasukan Katak; Frogmen Command), Kodim (Komando Distrik Militer; Military District Command—one of the Indonesian army's administrative divisions), Serka (Sersan Kepala; Head Sergeant), Akmil (Akademi Militer; Military Academy—in Magelang) and many other terms regarding ranks, units, divisions, procedures, etc.
Acronyms that use parts of words (not necessarily syllables) are commonplace in Russian as well, e.g. Газпром (Gazprom), for Газовая промышленность (Gazovaya promyshlennost, gas industry). There are also initialisms, such as СМИ (SMI, for средства массовой информации sredstva massovoy informatsii, means of mass informing, i.e. mass media). Another Russian acronym, ГУЛаг (GULag) combines two initials and three letters of the final word: it stands for Главное управление лагерей (Glavnoe upravlenie lagerey, Chief Administration of Camps).
Historically, OTMA was an acronym sometimes used by the daughters of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia and his consort, Alexandra Feodorovna, as a group nickname for themselves, built from the first letter of each girl's name in the order of their births : Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.
In Swahili, acronyms are common for naming organizations such as TUKI, which stands for Taasisi ya Uchunguzi wa Kiswahili (the Institute for Swahili Research). Multiple initial letters (often the initial syllable of words) are often drawn together, as seen more in some languages than others.
In Vietnamese, which has an abundance of compound words, initialisms are very commonly used for both proper and common nouns. Examples include TP.HCM (Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Ho Chi Minh City), THPT (trung học phổ thông, high school), CLB (câu lạc bộ, club), CSDL (cơ sở dữ liệu, database), NXB (nhà xuất bản, publisher), ÔBACE (ông bà anh chị em, a general form of address), and CTTĐVN (các Thánh tử đạo Việt Nam, Vietnamese Martyrs). Longer examples include CHXHCNVN (Cộng hòa Xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam, Socialist Republic of Vietnam) and MTDTGPMNVN (Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam, Viet Cong). Long initialisms have become widespread in legal contexts in Vietnam. It is also common for a writer to coin an ad-hoc initialism for repeated use in an article.
Each letter in an initialism corresponds to one morpheme – that is, one syllable. When the first letter of a syllable has a tone mark or other diacritic, the diacritic may be omitted from the initialism, for example ĐNA or ĐNÁ for Đông Nam Á (Southeast Asia) and LMCA or LMCÂ for Liên minh châu Âu (European Union). The letter "Ư" is often replaced by "W" in initialisms to avoid confusion with "U", for example UBTWMTTQVN or UBTƯMTTQVN for Ủy ban Trung ương Mặt trận Tổ quốc Việt Nam (Central Committee of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front).
Initialisms are purely a written convenience, being pronounced the same way as their expansions. As the names of many Vietnamese letters are disyllabic, it would be less convenient to pronounce an initialism by its individual letters. Acronyms pronounced as words are rare in Vietnamese, occurring when an acronym itself is borrowed from another language. Examples include SIĐA ([s̪i˧˧ ˀɗaː˧˧]), a respelling of the French acronym SIDA (AIDS); VOA ([vwaː˧˧]), a literal reading of the English initialism for Voice of America; and NASA ([naː˧˧ zaː˧˧]), borrowed directly from the English acronym.
As in Chinese, many compound words can be shortened to the first syllable when forming a longer word. For example, the term Việt Cộng is derived from the first syllables of "Việt Nam" (Vietnam) and "Cộng sản" (communist). This mechanism is limited to Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary. Unlike with Chinese, such shortened words are considered portmanteau words or blend words rather than acronyms or initialisms, because the Vietnamese alphabet still requires each component word to be written as more than one character.
General grammatical considerations
- An acronym is pronounced as a word: Nato [nato]—Natoon [natoːn] "into Nato", Nasalta "from NASA"
- An acronym is pronounced as letters: EU [eː uː]—EU:hun [eː uːhun] "into EU"
- An acronym is interpreted as words: EU [euroːpan unioni]—EU:iin [euroːpan unioniːn] "into EU"
The process above is similar to how, in English, hyphens are used for clarity when prefixes are added to acronyms, thus pre-NATO policy (rather than preNATO).
In languages such as Scottish Gaelic and Irish, where lenition (initial consonant mutation) is commonplace, acronyms must also be modified in situations where case and context dictate it. In the case of Scottish Gaelic, a lower case "h" is added after the initial consonant; for example, BBC Scotland in the genitive case would be written as BhBC Alba, with the acronym pronounced "VBC". Likewise, the Gaelic acronym for "television" (gd: telebhisean) is TBh, pronounced "TV", as in English.
- The longest acronym, according to the 1965 edition of Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary, is ADCOMSUBORDCOMPHIBSPAC, a United States Navy term that stands for "Administrative Command, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet Subordinate Command." Another term COMNAVSEACOMBATSYSENGSTA, which stands for "Commander, Naval Sea Systems Combat Engineering Station" is longer but the word "Combat" is not shortened.
- The world's longest acronym, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is NIIOMTPLABOPARMBETZHELBETRABSBOMONIMONKONOTDTEKHSTROMONT (Нииомтплабопармбетжелбетрабсбомонимонконотдтехстромонт). However, this is more precisely a combination acronym/clipped compound, as multiple initial letters of some constituent words are used. The 56-letter term (54 in Cyrillic) is from the Concise Dictionary of Soviet Terminology and means "The laboratory for shuttering, reinforcement, concrete and ferroconcrete operations for composite-monolithic and monolithic constructions of the Department of the Technology of Building-assembly operations of the Scientific Research Institute of the Organization for building mechanization and technical aid of the Academy of Building and Architecture of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." (научно-исследовательская [...] лаборатория операций по армированию бетона и железобетонных работ по сооружению сборно-монолитных и монолитных конструкций отдела технологии строительно-монтажного управления)
- The card-game Magic: The Gathering has a playing card called "Our Market Research Shows That Players Like Really Long Card Names So We Made this Card to Have the Absolute Longest Card Name Ever Elemental", with text on it saying: "Just call it OMRSTPLRLCNSWMTCTHTALCNEE for short."
- ^ This change was also applied to other languages, with Poulet Frit Kentucky becoming PFK in French Canada.
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