What Is an Acronym?

The name of the 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA is an acronym derived from the first names of the group's members: Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. (RB/Getty Images)

An acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a name (for example, NATO, from North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or by combining initial letters of a series of words (radar, from radio detection and ranging). Adjective: acronymic. Also called a protogram.

Strictly speaking, says lexicographer John Ayto, an acronym "denotes a combination pronounced as a word . . . rather than as just a sequence of letters" (A Century of New Words, 2007).

An anacronym is an acronym (or another initialism) for which the expanded form isn't widely known or used, such as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

See Examples and Observations below.

Etymology

From the Greek, "point" + "name"

Examples and Observations

  • Acronyms and Abbreviations
    "The difference between acronyms and abbreviations is this: acronyms are proper words created from the initial letter or two of the words in a phrase, and they are pronounced like other words (cf. snafu, radar, laser, or UNESCO). By contrast, abbreviations do not form proper words, and so they are pronounced as strings of letters, for example, S.O.B., IOU, U.S.A., MP, lp, or tv."
  • "I have a couple of lists that I can refer to throughout the day, but I don't have the official 'FAT' book yet. Yes, it really is called the FAT (Federal Acronym and Terms) book."
  • Acronymic Textspeak
    "Many acronyms meant to be written have wormed their way into spoken language--just ask your BFF, or the co-worker who prefaces everything with 'FYI.' Lately, this is also the case for Internet slang."
  • NIMBY
    NIMBY: from "Not In My Back Yard"--for a person who opposes anything scheduled to be built near his or her residence
  • FEMA
    "Re-branding FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) doesn't fix the problem; it just puts a new acronym on it."
  • The Ancient Roots of Acronymy
    "Acronymy has ancient roots, as illustrated by the early Christian use of the Greek word ichthys meaning 'fish' as an acronym for Iēsous Christos, Theou Huios, Sōtēr ('Jesus Christ, God's son, Savior'). In English, the first known acronyms (as opposed to plain old initialisms) cropped up in the telegraphic code developed by Walter P. Phillips for the United Press Association in 1879. The code abbreviated 'Supreme Court of the United States' as SCOTUS and 'President of the' as POT, giving way to POTUS by 1895. Those shorthand labels have lingered in journalistic and diplomatic circles--now joined by FLOTUS, which of course stands for 'First Lady of the United States.'"

Pronunciation

AK-ri-nim

Sources

Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Euphemism and Dysphemism. Oxford University Press, 1991

Douglas Quenqua, "Alphabet Soup." The New York Times, September 23, 2011

David Marin

Ben Zimmer, "On Language: Acronym." The New York Times Magazine, December 19, 2010

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Acronym?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-acronym-1689058. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 11). What Is an Acronym? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-acronym-1689058 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Acronym?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-acronym-1689058 (accessed December 16, 2017).