Acronyms, initialisms, and alphabetisms are abbreviations that are formed using the initial components in a phrase or name. These components may be individual letters (as in CEO), and/or parts of words (as in Benelux) (BElgium-NEtherlands-LUXembourg). There is no universal agreement on either the precise definition of the various terms (see Nomenclature) or on their uses (see Orthographic styling). While popular in recent English, such abbreviations have been in use throughout history in English and in other languages. As a type of word formation, acronym-initialisms are often viewed as a subtype of the shortening processes (other shortening processes being clipping and backformation).
Initialism originally described abbreviations formed from the initial letters of words, without reference to pronunciation. The word acronym was coined in 1943 by Bell Laboratories for abbreviations pronounced as words, such as NATO and AIDS. Of the names, acronym is the most frequently used and known; many use it to describe any abbreviation formed from initial letters. Others differentiate between the two terms, restricting acronym to pronounceable words formed from components (letters, usually initial, or syllables) of the constituent words, and using initialism or alphabetism for abbreviations pronounced as the names of the individual letters. In the latter usage, examples of proper acronyms would be NATO (pronounced /ˈneɪtoʊ/) and radar ([ˈreɪdɑr]), while examples of initialisms would include FBI ([ˌɛfˌbiːˈaɪ]) and HTML ([ˈeɪʧˌtiːˌɛmˌɛl]).
There is no agreement on what to call abbreviations whose pronunciation involves the combination of letter names and words, such as JPEG ([dʒeɪ.pɛg]) and MS-DOS ([ɛm.ɛs.dɔs]). These abbreviations are sometimes described as acronym–initialism hybrids, although most would group them under the broad meaning of acronym.
There is also some disagreement as to what to call abbreviations that some speakers pronounce as separate letters and others pronounce as a word. For example, the terms URL and IRA can be pronounced as individual letters or as a single word. Such constructions, however—regardless of how they are pronounced—if formed from initials, may be identified as initialisms without controversy.
In the English language, the widespread use of acronyms and initialisms is a relatively new linguistic phenomenon, becoming increasingly evident since the mid-twentieth century. As literacy rates rose, and as advances in science and technology brought with them more complicated 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.
Around 1943, the term acronym was coined to recognize abbreviations and contractions of phrases pronounced as words. For example, the army offense of being Absent Without Official Leave was abbreviated to "A.W.O.L." in reports, but when pronounced 'awol' 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. The word acronym itself comes from Greek: ἄκρος, akros, "topmost, extreme" + ὄνομα, onoma, "name."
Despite the recent emergence in English, earlier examples of acronyms in other languages exist. 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, Son of God, Savior). Evidence of this interpretation dates from the second and third 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").
Initialisms were used in ancient Rome dating back even earlier than the Christian era. For example, the official name for the Roman Empire, and the Republic before it, was abbreviated as SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus).
Acronyms pronounced as words, however, may be a twentieth century phenomenon. Linguist David Wilton in Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends states that "forming words from acronyms is a distinctly twentieth- (and now twenty-first-) century phenomenon. There is only one known pre-twentieth-century 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."
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), (a well known English-language example being the "alphabet agencies" created by Franklin D. Roosevelt under the New Deal). Business and industry also are prolific coiners of acronyms and initialisms, seeking to make their products or brand name more memorable. 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.
Acronyms and initialisms often occur in jargon. An initialism may have different meanings in different areas of industry, writing, and scholarship. This 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.
Traditionally, in English, abbreviations have 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.
Nevertheless, some influential style guides, many of them American, still require periods in certain instances. For example, The New York Times’ guide recommends separating 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 generally proscribed, although they may be common in informal, personal usage. TV, for example, may stand for a single word (television or transvestite, for instance), and is generally 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.). (Wikiquote abbreviates television as T.V.)
The slash (aka virgule) (/) is often used to show the ellipsis of letters in the initialism N/A (not applicable, not available).
The traditional style of pluralizing single letters with the addition of ’s (for example, B’s come after A’s) 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).
Multiple options arise when initialisms are spelled with periods and are pluralized: for example, compact discs may become C.D.’s, C.D’s, C.D.s, or CDs. Possessive plurals that also include apostrophes for mere pluralization and periods may appear especially complex: for example, the C.D.’s’ labels (the labels of the compact discs). Some see this as yet another reason that the correct usage of apostrophes is only for possessives and not for plurals. In some instances, however, it is recognized that using an apostrophe can increase clarity, for example if the final letter of an acronym is an S, as in SOS's, or when writing the plural form of an abbreviation with periods. (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.  ) This usage is less common than forms with "s" at the end, such as MPs, and may appear dated or pedantic.
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 generally 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’, 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 colloquial speech the pronunciation United States’s is sometimes used.
Abbreviations that come from single, rather than multiple, words—such as TV (television)—are pluralized both with and without apostrophes, depending on the logic followed: that the apostrophe shows the omission of letters and makes the s clear as only a pluralizer (TV’s); or that 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 convention is followed for a limited number of English abbreviations, such as pp. for pages (although this is actually derived from the Latin abbreviation for paginae), or MM for millions (frequently used in the petroleum industry).
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 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 technically incorrect; the preferred method being to simply append an s, without the apostrophe.
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.
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.
Small caps are sometimes used in order 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; 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."
On 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, and BBC News typically edits to this style. 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").
When initialisms are defined in print, especially in the case of industry-specific jargon, the initial letters of the full words are often capitalized, even when the expanded meaning is not a proper noun. This convention is pedagogically useful, because it quickly and efficiently draws the reader's attention to convey the idea "Notice that the acronym is derived from these letters," without circumlocuting to point out that fact. This is even more useful in cases where certain words contribute more than one letter to the acronym, which the letter-case differentiation can easily communicate. (For example, a writer can write, "MARC stands for MAchine Readable Cataloging.")
However, a problem lies in differentiating such pedagogical use from the usual purpose of "Title Case" capitalization, which is to mark a proper noun (for example, a brand name). Pedagogical temporary capitalization can inadvertently teach readers to think that the phrase is a proper noun, and to think that it should always be capitalized, which in cases such as storage area network is incorrect. This produces a drift toward spurious proper-noun status that can be called back-capitalization (by analogy to back-formation).
One way to avoid this miscommunication born of ambiguity is to achieve the pedagogical effect with bold or italic formatting of the lowercase letters, rather than with back-capitalization. For example, instead of writing, "SAN stands for Storage Area Network," it is less ambiguous to write, "SAN stands for storage area network."
While typically abbreviations exclude the initials of short function words (such as "and," "or," "of," or "to"), they are sometimes included in acronyms to make them pronounceable.
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." 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).
In some cases, an acronym or initialism has been redefined as a nonacronymous name, creating a pseudo-acronym. For example, the letters making up the name of the SAT (pronounced as letters) college entrance test no longer officially stand for anything. This trend has been common with many companies hoping to retain their brand recognition while simultaneously moving away from what they saw as 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, 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 couldn't 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. Similarly, "UBS" is the name of the merged Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corporation.
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. 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 (Automatic Teller Machine machine), EAB bank (European American Bank bank), 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).
Sometimes, the initials continue to stand for an expanded meaning, but the original meaning is simply replaced. Some examples:
A backronym (or bacronym) is a phrase that is constructed "after the fact" from a previously existing word, initialism, or acronym. For example, critics of the Ford Motor Company often humorously refer to Ford as being an acronym for phrases such as "fix or repair daily."
Most backronym formation occurs in the (linguistic) wild owing either to humor or to ignorance of an acronym's original meaning.
A contrived acronym is an acronym that has been deliberately designed in such a way that it will be especially apt as a name for the thing being named (such as by having a dual meaning or by borrowing the positive connotations of an existing word). Some examples of contrived acronyms are USA PATRIOT, CAPTCHA, and ACT UP.
Contrived acronyms differ from backronyms in that they were originally conceived with the artificial expanded meaning, while backronyms' expansion is spurious—invented later as a joke, or as a guess at what the original expansion may have been.
It's common to take more than just one initial letter from each of the words composing the acronym; regardless of this, the abbreviation sign is always written next to the last letter, 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).
Hebrew typography uses a special punctuation mark called Gershayim (״) to denote acronyms, placing the sign between the second-last and last letters of the non-inflected form of the acronym (e.g. "Report," singular: "דו״ח"; plural: "דו״חות"); initialisms are denoted using the punctuation mark Geresh (׳) by placing the sign after the last letter of the initialism (e.g. "Ms.": "׳בג"). However, in practice, single and double quotes are often used instead of the special punctuation marks, with the single quote used both in acronyms and initialisms.
If the acronym is read as is, then the spelling should be with a final form letter. If, on the other hand, the acronym is read as the complete phrase or read as the individual letters, then it should be spelled with a medial form letter. In practice, this rule is more often than not ignored, and the acronyms spelled either way.
Acronyms have been widely used in Hebrew since at least the Middle Ages. Several important rabbis are referred to with acronyms of their names. For example, Baal Shem Tov is called the Besht (Hebrew: בעש״ט), Rav Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) is commonly known as Rambam (Hebrew: רמב״ם), Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak is known as Rashi, and Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Nahmanides) is likewise known as the Ramban (Hebrew: רמב״ן).
Most often, though, one will find use of acronyms as acrostics, in both prayer, poetry (see Piyyut), and kabbalistic works. Because each Hebrew letter also has a numeric value, embedding an acrostic may give an additional layer of meaning to these works.
One purpose of acrostics was as a mnemonic or a way for an author to weave his name as a signature, or some other spiritual thought, into his work, at a time when much was memorized. Examples of prayers which contain acrostics include:
It is also a common part of Jewish thought to make inferences based on hidden acrostics. For example the Hebrew words for "man" (he: אישׁ) and "woman" (he: אשׁה) can be used to draw the inference that marriage, the joining of a man and a woman, is a spiritual relationship, because if one removes from each of the words "man" and "woman," one of the letters in the word "God" (he: י-ה), all that is left when "God" is removed from the joining of the two, is the word for destruction (he: אשׁ lit: fire) in place of each.
So much can be interpreted from Hebrew, and attributed to or inferred from it, that an interpretational system, called exegesis, has been developed along these lines.
When one of the letters is vav or yud, these may be read as vowels ("u" and "i") instead: דו״ח (duah = דין וחשבון, judgement and account); סכו״ם (sakum = סכין כף ומזלג, knife spoon and fork); תפו״ז (tapuz = תפוח זהב, golden apple); או״ם (um = האומות המאוחדות, the United Nations); ביל״ו Bilu.
Hebrew numbers (e.g. year numbers in the Hebrew calendar) are written the same way as acronyms, with gershayim before the last character, but pronounced as separate letter names: e.g. תשס״ח (Hebrew year 2007–2008) is tav-shin-samekh-khet.
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:
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." Similarly, the Gaelic acronym for "television" (gd: telebhisean) is TBh, pronounced "TV," as in English.
Mid-twentieth century German showed a tendency toward acronym-contractions of the Gestapo (for Geheime Staatspolizei) type: other examples are Hiwi (for Hilfswilliger, non-German volunteer in the German Army); Vopo (for Volkspolizist, member of police force in the GDR); Mufuti or MuFuTi (Multifunktionstisch - multi functional table in the GDR).
In English language discussion of languages with syllabic or logographic writing systems (such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), acronym describes short forms that take the first character of each multi-character element. For example, Beijing University—Beijing Daxue (literally, North-Capital Great-Learning 北京大学)—is widely known as Beida (literally, North-Great 北大). In describing such languages, 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,"; warnet stands for "warung internet" or internet cafe.
Strictly, an acronym is a string of initial letters pronounceable as a word, such as "NATO." Abbreviations like "NBC" have been variously designated "alphabetisms" and "initialisms," although some people do call them acronyms. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "Dictionaries, however, do not make this distinction [between acronyms and initialisms] because writers in general do not." However, two well known books on the topic are entitled Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary (19th ed., Gale, 1993) and Concise Dictionary of Acronyms and Initialisms (Facts on File, 1988).
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: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.
"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 which are pronounced as words … and those which are 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. Feb. 5, 1970.
"… the confusion in the Pentagon about abbreviations and acronyms—words formed from the first letters of other words"—Bernard Weinraub, New York Times, 11 Dec. 1978.
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