Acronym and initialism

Acronym and initialism

Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations formed from the initial components in a phrase or name. These components may be individual letters (as in CEO) or parts of words (as in Benelux and Ameslan). There is no universal agreement on the precise definition of the various terms (see nomenclature), nor on written usage (see orthographic styling). While popular in recent English, such abbreviations have historical use in English as well as other languages. As a type of word formation process, acronyms and initialisms are viewed as a subtype of blending.



The term acronym is the name for a word created from the first letters of each word in a series of words (such as sonar, created from sound navigation and ranging).[1] Attestations for "Akronym" in German are known from 1921, and for "acronym" in English from 1940.[2] While the word abbreviation refers to any shortened form of a word or a phrase, some have used initialism or alphabetism to refer to an abbreviation formed simply from, and used simply as, a string of initials.

Although the term acronym is widely used to describe any abbreviation formed from initial letters,[3] most dictionaries define acronym to mean "a word" in its original sense,[4][5][6] while some include a secondary indication of usage, attributing to acronym the same meaning as that of initialism.[7][8][9] According to the primary definition found in most dictionaries, examples of acronyms are NATO (/ˈnt/), scuba (/ˈskbə/), and radar (/ˈrdɑr/), while examples of initialisms are FBI (/ˌɛfˌbˈ/) and HTML (/ˌˌtˌɛmˈɛl/).[4][8][10]

There is no agreement on what to call abbreviations whose pronunciation involves the combination of letter names and words, such as JPEG (/ˈpɛɡ/) 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: /ˌjuːˌɑrˈɛl/ and /ˌˌɑrˈ/, respectively; or as a single word: /ˈɜrl/ and /ˈaɪərə/, respectively. Such constructions, however—regardless of how they are pronounced—if formed from initials, may be identified as initialisms without controversy.

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
    • AIDS: acquired immune deficiency syndrome
    • ASBO: Antisocial Behaviour Order
    • NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization
    • Scuba: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
    • Laser: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
  • Pronounced as a word, containing non-initial letters
    • Amphetamine: alpha-methyl-phenethylamine
    • Gestapo: Geheime Staatspolizei (secret state police)
    • Interpol: International Criminal Police Organization
    • Mavica: Magnetic video camera
    • Nabisco: National Biscuit Company
  • Pronounced as a word, containing a mixture of initial and non-initial letters
    • Necco: New England Confectionery Company
    • Radar: radio detection and ranging
  • Pronounced as a word or names of letters, depending on speaker or context
    • FAQ: ([fæk] or F A Q) frequently asked questions
    • IRA: When used for Individual Retirement Account, can be pronounced as letters (I R A) or as a word [ˈaɪrə].
    • SAT: ([sæt] or S A T) (previously) Scholastic Achievement (or Aptitude) Test(s), now claimed not to stand for anything.[11]
    • SQL: ([siːkwəl] or S Q L) Structured Query Language.
  • Pronounced as a combination of names of letters and a word
    • CD-ROM: (C-D-[rɒm]) Compact Disc read-only memory
    • IUPAC: (I-U-[pæk]) International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry
    • JPEG: (J-[pɛɡ]) Joint Photographic Experts Group
    • SFMOMA: (S-F-[moʊmə]) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
    • DSCAM: (dee-scam) Down Syndrome Cell Adhesion Molecule
  • Pronounced only as the names of letters
    • BBC: British Broadcasting Corporation
    • DNA: deoxyribonucleic acid
    • OEM: Original Equipment Manufacturer
    • USA: United States of America
    • IRA: When used for the Irish Republican Army or organisations claiming descent from this group
  • Shortcut incorporated into name
    • 3M: (three M) originally Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company
    • E3: (E three) Electronic Entertainment Exposition
    • W3C: (W three C) World Wide Web Consortium
    • C4ISTAR: (C four I star) Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance[12]
  • Multi-layered acronyms
    • NAC Breda: (Dutch football club) NOAD ADVENDO Combinatie ("NOAD ADVENDO Combination"), formed by the 1912 merger of two clubs, NOAD (Nooit Opgeven Altijd Doorgaan "Never give up, always persevere") and ADVENDO (Aangenaam Door Vermaak En Nuttig Door Ontspanning "Pleasant for its entertainment and useful for its relaxation") from Breda[13][14]
    • GAIM: GTK+ AOL Instant Messenger
    • GIMP: GNU Image Manipulation Program
    • PAC-3: PATRIOT Advanced Capability 3 i.e., Phased Array Tracking RADAR Intercept on Target i.e., RAdio Detection And Ranging
    • VHDL: VHSIC hardware description language, where VHSIC stands for very-high-speed integrated circuit.
  • Recursive acronyms, in which the abbreviation refers to itself
    • GNU: GNU's not Unix!
    • LAME: LAME Ain't an MP3 Encoder
    • WINE: WINE Is Not an Emulator
    • PHP: PHP hypertext pre-processor (formerly personal home page)
    • These may go through multiple layers before the self-reference is found:
      • HURD: HIRD of Unix-replacing daemons, where "HIRD" stands for "HURD of interfaces representing depth"
  • Pseudo-acronyms, which consist of a sequence of characters that, when pronounced as intended, invoke other, longer words with less typing (see also Internet slang)
    • CQ: "Seek you", a code used by radio operators (also is an editorial term meaning "Copy Qualified" in print media)
    • IOU: "I owe you" (true acronym would be IOY)
    • K9: "Canine", used to designate police units utilizing dogs
    • Q8: "Kuwait"
  • Initialisms whose last abbreviated word is often redundantly included anyway
    • ATM machine: Automated Teller Machine machine
    • DSW Shoe Warehouse: Designer Shoe Warehouse Shoe Warehouse
    • HIV virus: Human Immunodeficiency Virus virus
    • PAN number: Permanent Account Number number
    • PIN number: Personal Identification Number number
    • VIN number: Vehicle Identification Number number

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:

  • Initialisms 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).
  • The early Christians in Rome used the image of a fish as a symbol for Jesus in part because of an acronym—fish in Greek is ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys), which was said to stand for Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ (Iesous CHristos THeou (h) Uios Soter: Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior). Evidence of 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 (aka Maimonides, from the initial letters of his full Hebrew name (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) and Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki).

During the mid to late 19th century, an initialism-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),[15] Esso (from S.O., from Standard Oil), and Sunoco (Sun Oil Company).

The widespread, frequent use of acronyms and initialisms 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.[15] (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.[16] 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,[17] for example UNIVAC from UNIVersal Automatic Computer.[18]

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."[19][20]

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 initialisms 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 etymology of the word alphabet itself comes to Middle English from the Late Latin Alphabetum, which in turn derives from the Ancient Greek Alphabetos, from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.[21] In colloquial terms, learning the alphabet is called learning one's ABCs.

Current use

Acronyms and initialisms are used most often to abbreviate names of organizations and long or frequently referenced terms. The armed forces and government agencies frequently employ initialisms (and occasionally, acronyms); some well-known examples from the United States are among the "alphabet agencies" created by Franklin D. Roosevelt under the New Deal. Business and industry also are prolific coiners of acronyms and initialisms. 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").[22]

The use of initialisms has been further popularized with the emergence of Short Message Systems (SMS). To fit messages into the 160-Character limit of SMS, initialisms such as "GF" (girl friend), "LOL" (laughing out loud), and "DL" (download or down low) have been popularized into the mainstream.[23] Although prescriptivist disdain for such neologism is fashionable, and can be useful when the goal is protecting message receivers from crypticness, it is scientifically groundless when couched as preserving the "purity" or "legitimacy" of language; this neologism is merely the latest instance of a perennial linguistic principle—the same one that in the 19th century prompted the aforementioned abbreviation of corporation names in places where space for writing was limited (e.g., ticker tape, newspaper column inches).

Aids to learning the expansion without leaving a document

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 term such as frequently asked questions (FAQ) but uppercase for a proper name such as the United Nations (UN).

In addition to expansion at first use, some publications also have a key listing all acronyms or initialisms 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.)

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 and hyperlinks.


Acronyms and initialisms often occur in jargon. An initialism 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 initialism 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. [24]

As Mnemonics

Acronyms and initialisms 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 and initialisms include CAN SLIM, and PAVPANIC.

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,"[25] posh from "port out, starboard home",[26] and golf from "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden".[26][27] Taboo words in particular commonly have such false etymologies: shit from "ship/store high in transit"[19][28] or "special high-intensity training" and fuck from "for unlawful carnal knowledge", or "fornication under consent of the king".[28]

Orthographic styling


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. In the case of most acronyms and initialisms, 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.

Ellipsis-is-understood style

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",[29] though some other sources are not so absolute in their pronouncements.

Pronunciation-dependent style

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.[30] The logic of this style is that the pronunciation is reflected graphically by the punctuation scheme.

Other conventions

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 ('/', a.k.a. virgule) is sometimes used to show the ellipsis of letters, for instance in the initialisms N/A (not applicable, not available) 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 amount of letters, the more general "x" can be used to replace an unspecified number of letters (e.g., Crxn for crystallization).

Representing plurals and possessives

The traditional style of pluralizing single letters with the addition of ’s (for example, Bs come after As) was extended to some of the earliest initialisms, which tended to be written with periods to indicate the omission of letters; some writers still pluralize initialisms in this way. Some style guides continue to require such apostrophes — perhaps partly to make it clear that the lower case s is only for pluralization and would not appear in the singular form of the word, for some acronyms and abbreviations do include lowercase letters.

However, it has become common among many writers to inflect initialisms as ordinary words, using simple s, without an apostrophe, for the plural. In this case, compact discs becomes CDs. The logic here is that the apostrophe should be restricted to possessives: for example, the CD's label (the label of the compact disc).[31]

Multiple options arise when initialisms are spelled with periods and are pluralized: for example, whether compact discs may become C.D.'s, C.D.s, CD's, or CDs. 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). This is yet another reason to use apostrophes only for possessives and not for plurals. In some instances, however, an apostrophe may increase clarity: for example, if the final letter of an abbreviation is S, as in SOS's, or when pluralizing an abbreviation that has periods.[32][33] (In The New York Times, the plural possessive of G.I., which the newspaper prints with periods in reference to United States Army soldiers, is G.I.'s, with no apostrophe after the s.)

A particularly rich source of options arises when the plural of an initialism 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.[34][35] (or similar[36]), as famously used by a former Australian Prime Minister.[citation needed] 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 initialisms 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 pluralized without apostrophes: the apostrophe should be reserved for the possessive (TVs).

In some languages, the convention of doubling the letters in the initialism 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 pages (although this is actually derived from the Latin abbreviation for paginae[citation needed]) or MSS for manuscripts.

Acronyms that are now always rendered in the lower case are pluralized as regular English nouns: for example, lasers.

When an initialism is part of a function in computing that is conventionally written in lower case, it is common to use an apostrophe to pluralize or otherwise conjugate the token. This practice results in such sentences like "Be sure to remove extraneous .dll's" (more than one .dll). However, despite the pervasiveness of this practice, it is generally held to be incorrect; the preferred method being to simply append an s, without the apostrophe.[37]

In computer lingo, it is common to use the name of a computer program, format, or function, acronym or not, as a verb. In such verbification of abbreviations, there is confusion about how to conjugate: for example, if the verb IM (pronounced as separate letters) means to send (someone) an instant message, the past tense may be rendered IM’ed, IMed, IM’d, or IMd — and the third-person singular present indicative may be IM's or IMs.


All-caps style

The most common capitalization scheme seen with acronyms and initialisms 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 (a portmanteau with anachronism).[citation needed]

Small-caps variant

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 and initialisms longer than three letters[citation needed]; thus "U.S." and "FDR" in normal caps, but "NATO" in small caps. The initialisms "AD" and "BC" are often smallcapped as well, as in: "From 4004 BC to AD 525."

Pronunciation-dependent style

At the copyediting end of the publishing industry, where the aforementioned distinction between acronyms (pronounced as a word) and initialisms (pronounced as a series of letters) is usually maintained, some publishers choose to use cap/lowercase (c/lc) styling for acronyms, reserving all-caps styling for initialisms. Thus Nato and Aids (c/lc), but USA and FBI (caps). For example, this is the style used in The Guardian,[38] and BBC News typically edits to this style (though its official style guide, dating from 2003, still recommends all-caps [39]). 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"), they are sometimes included in acronyms to make them pronounceable. 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"); 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).

Changes to (or word play on) the expanded meaning


In some cases, an acronym or initialism has been redefined as a non-acronymous name—creating a pseudo-acronym. The term "orphan initialism" has also been used for names that began as an acronym but lost this status.[40] Such an apparent acronym or other abbreviation, that does not stand for anything cannot be expanded to some meaning. For example, the letters of the SAT (pronounced as letters) college entrance 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 (its parent/child, SBC, followed suit prior to its acquisition of AT&T and after its acquisition of a number of the other Baby Bells, changing from Southwestern Bell Corporation), Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC to de-emphasize the role of frying in the preparation of its signature dishes,[41] British Petroleum became BP to emphasize that it was no longer only an oil company (captured by its motto "beyond petroleum"), Silicon Graphics, Incorporated became SGI to emphasize that it was no longer only a computer graphics company. DVD now has no official meaning: Its advocates could not agree on whether the initials stood for "Digital Video Disc" or "Digital Versatile Disc", and now both terms are used.

Pseudo-acronyms may have advantages in international markets: for example, some national affiliates of International Business Machines are legally incorporated as "IBM" (or, 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 Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation."

Recursive acronyms and RAS syndrome

Rebranding can lead to redundant-acronym syndrome 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. An example in entertainment is the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, where the redundancy was likely designed to educate new viewers as to what "CSI" stood for. The same stood for 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. Other examples include ATM machine (automated teller machine machine), EAB bank (European American Bank bank), DC Comics (Detective Comics Comics), HIV virus (human immunodeficiency virus virus), Microsoft's NT Technology (New Technology Technology) and the formerly redundant SAT test (Scholastic Achievement/Aptitude/Assessment Test test, now simply SAT Reasoning Test). TNN (The Nashville/National Network) also renamed itself The New TNN for a brief interlude.

Simple redefining

Sometimes, the initials continue to stand for an expanded meaning, but the original meaning is simply replaced. Some examples:

  • CAF was Confederate Air Force, a ragtag collection of vintage warplanes that started in Odessa, Texas. It was changed to Commemorative Air Force to better reflect its mission and avoid offense.
  • DVD was originally an initialism 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.
  • The OCLC changed the full form of its name from Ohio College Library Center to Online Computer Library Center.
  • RAID used to mean Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, but is now commonly interpreted as Redundant Array of Independent Disks.
  • SADD changed the full form of its name from Students Against Driving Drunk to Students Against Destructive Decisions.
  • WWF originally stood for World Wildlife Fund, but now stands for Worldwide Fund for Nature (although the former name is still used in the US).


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."[42] A classic real-world example of this in action is the name of the predecessor to the Apple Macintosh, The Apple Lisa, which was said to refer to "Local Integrated Software Architecture", but Steve Jobs' daughter, born 1978, was named Lisa.

Contrived acronyms

A contrived acronym is one 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).[citation needed] 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". See the list of fictional espionage organizations for more examples of contrived acronyms.

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,[43] a reference to the Batman and Robin Comic-book superheroes.

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.[citation needed] 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 (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). Team in Training is known as TNT and not TIT. Technological Institute of Textile & Sciences is still known as TITS. The war on terror was originally referred to in early Bush speeches as "The War Against Terror" (TWAT), but this was swiftly changed.[citation needed]

Contrived acronyms differ from backronyms in that they were originally conceived with the artificial expanded meaning, whereas backronyms are later-invented expansions.

Macronyms / Nested Acronyms

A macronym, or nested acronym, is an acronym in which one or more letters stand for acronyms themselves.[citation needed] A special type of macronym has letters that refer back to itself when expanded. These are called recursive acronyms. 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"

Non-recursive macronyms:

  • 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.) (This example is not a recursive acronym)
  • 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.

Some non-recursive 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.[44]

Non-English language

Asian languages


In English language discussion of languages with syllabic or logographic writing systems (such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), acronym describes short forms that take selected characters from a multi-character word.

For example, in Chinese, the word "大學"/"大学" ("university" in traditional/simplified Chinese, literally "big educate"), when used with the name of the university, is usually abbreviated as "大" *"big"). So "北京大学" (Beijing University ("北京" = "Beijing", literally "north capital")) is commonly abbreviated to "北大" (literally "north big"). In this case, the first characters "北" and "大" from "北京" and "大学" are taken to compose the short form. In some cases, however, other characters than the first can be selected. For example, the local short form of "香港大學" (Hong Kong University, "香港" = "Hong Kong") is "港大" rather than "香大". There are also cases where some longer phrases are abbreviated drastically. For instance, 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.


There is also a widespread use of acronyms and initialisms 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 metropolitan (Jakarta and its surrounding satellite regions), Jabodetabek, is another infamous acronym. Jabodetabek stands for Jakarta-Bogor-Depok-Tangerang-Bekasi. Many highways are also named by acronym and initialism method; e.g. Jalan Tol (Toll Road) Jagorawi (Jakarta-Bogor-Ciawi) and Purbaleunyi (Purwakarta-Bandung-Cileunyi).

In some languages, especially those that use certain alphabets, many acronyms and initialisms come from the military. 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 Indonesian army administrative divisions), Serka (Sersan Kepala; Head Sergeant), Akmil (Akademi Militer; Military Academy - in Magelang) and many other terms regarding ranks, units, divisions, procedures, etc.

Heavy acronym and initialism use by Indonesians, makes it difficult for foreigners and learners of Bahasa Indonesia to seek information and news in Indonesian media.


German tends toward acronyms that use syllables rather than letters—such as 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 AbKüFi (for Abkürzfimmel, strange habit of abbreviating). Examples of AbKüFi include Vokuhila (for vorne kurz, hinten lang, short in the front, long in the back, i.e., a mullet).


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: 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").


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 languages where nouns are declined, various methods are used. An example is Finnish, where a colon is used to separate inflection from the letters:

  • An acronym is pronounced as a word: Nato [nato] — Natoon [natoːn] "into Nato"
  • An initialism is pronounced as letters: EU [eː uː] — EU:hun [eː uːhun] "into EU"
  • An initialism 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 initialism, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is NIIOMTPLABOPARMBETZHELBETRABSBOMONIMONKONOTDTEKHSTROMONT (Нииомтплабопармбетжелбетрабсбомонимонконотдтехстромонт). The 56-letter initialism (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."

See also


  1. ^ Fischer, Roswitha. (1998). Lexical change in present-day English: A corpus-based study of the motivation, institutionalization, and productivity of creative neologisms. Tübingen: G. Narr.
  2. ^ Paris Gazette, by Lion Feuchtwanger; translated (from Exil)by Willa and Edwin Muir, New York, Viking Press, 1940. Chapter 47, Beasts of Prey, pages 665-666: "His first glance at the _Paris German News_ told Wiesener that this new paper was nothing like the old _P.G._. "They can call it the _P.G.N._ if they like", he thought, "but that's the only difference. Pee-gee-enn; what's the word for words like that, made out of initials? My memory is beginning to fail me. [p. 666] Just the other day there was a technical expression I couldn't remember. I must be growing old. "_P.G._ or _P.G.N._, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other.... Pee-gee-enn. It's an acronym, that's what it is. That's what they call words made up of initials. So i remember it after all; that's at least something...." For "Akronym" used in 1921 or 1922, giving an example of "Agfa" film: Brockhaus Handbuch des Wissens in vier Bänden. Leipzig, F. A. Brockhaus, [1922-23, c1921-23] v.1 p. 37. [1]
  3. ^ Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1994. ISBN 0-87779-132-5. pp. 21–2:

    acronyms   A number of commentators (as Copperud 1970, Janis 1984, Howard 1984) 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:

    "The powder metallurgy industry has officially adopted the acronym 'P/M Parts'" —Precision Metal Molding, January 1966.
    "Users of the term acronym make no distinction between those pronounced as words … and those pronounced as a series of characters" —Jean Praninskas, Trade Name Creation, 1968.
    "It is not J.C.B.'s fault that its name, let alone its acronym, is not a household word among European scholars" —Times Literary Supp. 5 February 1970.
    "… the confusion in the Pentagon about abbreviations and acronyms—words formed from the first letters of other words" —Bernard Weinraub., N.Y. Times, 11 December 1978

    Pyles & Algeo 1970 divide acronyms into "initialisms", which consists of initial letters pronounced with the letter names, and "word acronyms", which are pronounced as words. 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.
  4. ^ a b "acronym". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (1991), Oxford University Press. p. 12: "a word, usu[ally] pronounced as such, formed from the initial letters of other words (e.g. Ernie, laser, Nato)".
  5. ^ "acronym" "Webster's Online Dictionary (2001)", accessed Oct 7, 2008: Acronym "A word formed from the initial letters of a multi-word name."
  6. ^ "acronym" "Cambridge Dictionary of American English", accessed Oct 5, 2008: "a word created from the first letters of each word in a series of words."
  7. ^ "acronym." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, accessed May 2, 2006: "a word (as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term; also: an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters: see initialism "
  8. ^ a b Crystal, David (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55985-5. p. 120: Its encyclopedic entry for Abbreviation contains an inset entitled "Types of Abbreviation", which lists Initialisms, followed by Acronyms, which he describes simply as "Initialisms pronounced as single words" but then adds "However, some linguists do not recognize a sharp distinction between acronyms and initialisms, but use the former term for both."
  9. ^ "acronym". Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (2003), Barnes & Noble. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2. "1. a word created from the first letter or letters of each word in a series of words or a phrase. 2. a set of initials representing a name, organization, or the like, with each letter pronounced separately, as FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation."
  10. ^ "acronym" Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED Online Oxford University Press. Accessed May 2, 2006.
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  18. ^ American Speech (1950) Vol. 25 No. 2 page 147
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  25. ^ See Snopes article.
  26. ^ a b Quinion, Michael (2005). Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-101223-4. ; published in the US as Quinion, Michael (2006). Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-085153-8. 
  27. ^ "See article at Snopes". Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
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  30. ^ Kristoff, Nicholas D. (2004-02-07). "Secret Obsessions at the Top". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-05. 
  31. ^ "Taligent Style Guide - A". Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
  32. ^ "Writer's Block - Writing Tips - Plural and Possessive Abbreviations". Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
  33. ^ Robert. "EditFast Grammar Resource: Apostrophes: Forming Plurals". Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
  34. ^ "Libraries Australia - T.H. McWilliam, Charles Kingsford Smith, Prime Minister of New Zealand Joseph Coates, Charles Ulm and H.A. Litchfield in front row with Members of Parliament on steps of Parliament House, Wellington, New Zealand, September 1928 [picture] / Crown Studios". Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
  35. ^ Author: Robin Hyde. "Chapter III. — The House is in Session". NZETC. Retrieved 2010-09-16. 
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  37. ^ Computer Dictionary Project
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  39. ^ "BBC News Style Guide". 
  40. ^ Language Log: Orphan initialisms
  41. ^ Peter O. Keegan (1991-02-21). "KFC shuns 'fried' image with new name – Kentucky Fried Chicken has changed its name to KFC". Nation's Restaurant News. Retrieved 2007-08-24.  This change was also applied to other languages, with Poulet Frit Kentucky becoming PFK in French Canada.
  42. ^ 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (New York: Summit Books, 1984).
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External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • acronym — /ˈækrənɪm / (say akruhnim) noun 1. a word formed from the initial letters of a sequence of words, as radar (from radio detection and ranging) or ANZAC (from Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). Compare initialism. 2. an initialism. {acro +… …   Australian English dictionary

  • acronym — noun /ˈæk.ɹə.nɪm/ a) An abbreviation formed by (usually initial) letters taken from a word or series of words, that is itself pronounced as a word, such as RAM, radar, or scuba; sometimes contrasted with initialism. b) A pronounceable word formed …   Wiktionary

  • initialism — /i nish euh liz euhm/, n. 1. a name or term formed from the initial letters of a group of words and pronounced as a separate word, as NATO for North Atlantic Treaty Organization; an acronym. 2. a set of initials representing a name, organization …   Universalium

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  • Recursive acronym — A recursive acronym (synonymous with metacronym,[1] recursive initialism, and recursive backronym) is an acronym or initialism that refers to itself in the expression for which it stands. The term was first used in print in April 1986.[2]… …   Wikipedia

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