Definition: Acronym

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Borrowed from German Akronym, from Ancient Greek ἄκρον or ákron (end, peak) and ὄνυμα or ónuma (name), equivalent to acro- (high; beginning) + -onym (name). Modelled after homonym and synonym, first attested in German in the early 1900s and in English in 1940.


acronym (plural acronyms)

  1. (linguistics) An abbreviation formed by the initial letters of other words, sometimes exclusively such abbreviations when pronounced as a word (as "laser") rather than as individual letters (initialisms such as "TNT").
  2. (linguistics) An abbreviation formed by the beginning letters or syllables of other words (as "Benelux").

Usage notes

The broader sense of acronym inclusive of initialisms (as "TNT") is sometimes proscribed, but is the term's original and more common meaning. The status of an acronym's pronunciation is not always obvious, as some initialisms have gained interstitial vowels to ease their expression (as /ˈwɪzdəl/ for "WSDL") and others are pronounced alternatively as words or initialisms (as /ˈsiːkwəl/ or /ɛskjuːɛl/ for "SQL").

Acronyms in all senses may variously be written in all capital letters (as "UNESCO" or "WYSIWYG") or in lower case (as "scuba" or "sitcom"), according to the degree to which they have come to be seen as words separate from their derivation (that is, depending on how anacronymic they have become). American style guides tend to favor the use of capital spelling for pronounced acronyms of four letters or fewer (as "NATO") whereas British style guides tend to favor standard capitalization of pronounced acronyms as though they were a standard word ("Nato"). Acronyms formed from beginning syllables are sometimes written in camel case (as "EpiPen," "The FuMP," or "CHiPs,") although this may be precluded by style guides. Mixed capitalization is also sometimes used when acronyms include words usually left uncapitalized in title case but which have been included for pronunciation or clarity (as "VaR" for "Value at Risk"); in other cases, the standard acronym capitalizes such minor words as well (as "TOEFL" for the "Test of English as a Foreign Language").

Like all abbreviations, acronyms were formerly usually punctuated with full stops or periods to mark the divisions between the original words (as "U.S.A." or "P.R.C.") but this punctuation is increasingly omitted, particularly in the case of acronyms treated as generic words (as "radar" and "sonar") and in acronyms formed from syllables rather than letters. Folk etymologies frequently imagine acronymic expansions for such common words as "golf," "cop," and "posh," but the earliest English acronym listed by the Oxford English Dictionary is a form of "abjad" in 1793, and their use did not become widespread throughout the language until the world wars of the twentieth century.

Derived terms

  • acronymania
  • acronymic
  • acronymization
  • acronymous
  • backronym
  • nonacronymous
  • pseudo-acronym
  • recursive acronym


acronym (third-person singular simple present acronyms, present participle acronyming or acronymming, simple past and past participle acronymed or acronymmed)

  1. To form into an acronym.


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