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Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations formed from the initial letter or letters of words, such as NATO and XHTML, and are pronounced in a way that is distinct from the full pronunciation of what the letters stand for.
Of the two words, acronym is the much more frequently used and known, and many speakers and writers refer to all abbreviations formed from initial letters as acronyms. However, some differentiate between acronyms and initialisms: an acronym is a pronounceable word formed from the initial letter or letters of the constituent words, such as NATO (nay-toe), and an initialism is an abbreviation pronounced as the names of the individual letters, and is formed only from the initial letter of constituent words, such as TLA (tee el ay). This distinction is supported by many dictionary definitions, but not by all.
Acronyms and initialisms are a relatively new linguistic phenomenon, having only become popular during the 20th century. As literacy rates rose, the practice of referring to words by their first letters became increasingly convenient. The first recorded use of the word initialism in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is in 1899, and the first for acronym is in 1943. The word acronym comes from Greek: ακρον, akron, "limb" + ονομα, onoma, "name").
Nonetheless, earlier examples of acronyms exist. The early Christians in Rome used a fish as a symbol for Jesus in part because of an acronym — fish in Greek is ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthus), which was said to stand for Ιησους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σωτηρ (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.
Acronyms and initialisms often occur in jargon or as names of organizations because they often serve as abbreviations of long terms that are frequently referenced, so a shortened form is desirable. Militaries and government agencies frequently employ acronyms and initialisms, perhaps most famously the US Government and the so-called alphabet agencies of Roosevelt's New Deal. Cynics have complained that acronyms are used to obfuscate.
Abbreviations have been traditionally written using a full stop/period to mark the part that was deleted. In the case of most acronyms and initialisms, each letter is its own abbreviation, and in theory should get its own period. This usage is becoming less common as the presence of all capital letters is sufficient to indicate the word is an abbreviation; nevertheless some influential style guides still insist on the many-periods treatment, such as the one used by The New York Times (which recommends periods after unpronounceable abbreviations such as "K.G.B." but not pronounceable ones, such as "NATO" ), but others, such as at the BBC, no longer require this.
Some acronyms undergo assimilation into ordinary words, when technical terms become commonplace with non-technical people: often they are then written in lower case, and eventually it is widely forgotten that the word was derived from the initials of others: scuba (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) and laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), for instance. The term anacronym has been coined as a portmanteau of the words anachronism and acronym to describe acronyms whose original meaning is not known to most speakers.
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.
The traditional style of pluralizing single letters with "'s" ("there are two Q's in that word") was naturally extended to acronyms when they were commonly written with periods, and is still preferred by some people, especially when the acronym is pronounced as separate letters. However, today it is more usual to inflect them like ordinary words; thus the usual plural of "CD" is "CDs," with "CD's" being reserved for the possessive.
In other languages, the convention of doubling the letters in the acronym is used to indicate plural words, for example the well known Spanish acronym EE.UU. for Estados Unidos ("United States").
In some cases, an acronym or initialism has been turned into a name. The letters making up the name of the SAT college entrance test, for example, 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 is now simply AT&T, the company formerly named Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to "KFC" (though whether to avoid negative connotations of the word "fried", or regional associations with Kentucky, or to allow products other than chicken remains a subject of speculation); British Petroleum changed its name to "BP" to emphasize that it was no longer only an oil company (captured by the motto "beyond petroleum"); and Silicon Graphics, Incorporated changed its name to "SGI" to emphasize that it was no longer only a computer graphics company. Initialisms 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. This rebranding can lead to RAS syndrome, as when Trustee Savings Bank became "TSB Bank".
Sometimes, the initials are kept but the meaning is changed. SADD, for instance, originally Students Against Drunk Driving, changed the full form of its name to Students Against Destructive Decisions. YM originally stood for Young Miss, and later Young & Modern, but now stands for simply Your Magazine.
When initialisms are defined in print, especially in the case of industry-specific jargon, the words forming the abbreviation are often capitalized for clarity. While this would be perfectly acceptable for proper nouns like Kentucky Fried Chicken, some usage writers have argued that it is technically incorrect for other terms like storage area network. Correct or not, such usage is widespread in English publications.
Initialism originally referred to abbreviations formed from initials, without reference to pronunciation, but during the middle portion of the twentieth century, when acronyms and initialisms saw more use than ever before, the word acronym was coined for abbreviations which are pronounced as a word, like "NATO" or "AIDS". The term initialism is now typically taken to refer to abbreviations which are pronounced by sounding out the name of each constituent letter (e.g. HTML). Some have extended the term acronym in meaning to describe all abbreviations made from initial letters, regardless of pronunciation.
There is no agreement as to what to call abbreviations that contain single letters, but can otherwise be pronounced as a word, such as JPEG (Jay-Peg). These abbreviations are sometimes referred to as acronym-initialism hybrids, although they are grouped by some under the broad meaning of acronym.
- pronounced as a word, containing only initial letters:
NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization
AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
laser: light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
scuba: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
- pronounced as a word, containing non-initial letters:
Interpol: International Criminal Police Organization
Gestapo: Geheime Staatspolizei ("secret state police")
radar: radio detection and ranging
CONMEBOL: Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (South American Football Confederation)
- pronounced as a word or names of letters, depending on speaker or context:
FAQ: (fack or ef-ay-kyu) Frequently asked questions
SQL: (sequel or es-kyu-el) Structured Query Language
VAT: (vat or vee-ay-tee): Value added tax
- pronounced as a combination of names of letters and a word:
OPEC: (OH-pec) Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
JPEG: (JAY-peg) Joint Photographic Experts Group
IUPAC: (AYE-YOU-pac) International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry
UEFA: (You-EE-fa or You-AY-fa) Union of European Football Associations
- pronounced only as the names of letters
BBC: British Broadcasting Corporation
DNA: DeoxyriboNucleic Acid
DNS: Domain Name System
ICBM: Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles
- pronounced as the names of letters that also sound like words
YRUU: (WHY-are-YOU-YOU?) Young Religious Unitarian Universalists
- pronounced as the names of letters but with a shortcut
AAA: (triple-AY) American Automobile Association
IEEE: (AYE-triple-EE) Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
NAACP: (EN-double-AY-SEE-PEA) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
NCAA: (EN-SEE-double-AY) National Collegiate Athletic Association
- shortcut incorporated into name
3M: originally Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company
W3C: World Wide Web Consortium
E³: Electronic Entertainment Exposition
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."
The world's longest initialism, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is NIIOMTPLABOPARMBETZHELBETRABSBOMONIMONKONOTDTEKHSTROMONT. 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 USSR."
Sometimes an acronym's official meaning is crafted to fit an acronym that actually means something that sounds less "official." For instance, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon recently developed in the United States is popularly called the "mother of all bombs" since it is the largest conventional bomb in the world; it is widely assumed that the "mother of all bombs" phrase was the true inspiration for the MOAB acronym.
During the 1960s trend for action-adventure spy thrillers, it was a common practice for fictional spy organizations or their nemeses to employ names that were acronyms. Sometimes these acronyms made sense but most of the time, they were words incongruously crammed together for the mere purpose of obtaining a catchy acronym, traditionally a heroic sounding one for the good guys and an appropriately menacing one for the bad guys. This has become one of the most commonly parodied clichés of the spy thriller genre. Some of the most popular were:
S.P.E.C.T.R.E. from the James Bond series.
- U.N.C.L.E. and T.H.R.U.S.H from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (the meaning of T.H.R.U.S.H. was never revealed on the series)
K.A.O.S. from the Get Smart series.
S.H.I.E.L.D. from the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel comics.
- H.A.R.M from the No One Lives Forever (NOLF) series of computer games, which were released in the 1990s, but were based in '60s pop culture. What H.A.R.M actually stands for is never revealed, and speculation about its true meaning is the subject of several jokes in both games. (However, in the 1966 spy film Agent for H.A.R.M. , it stands for Human Aetiological Relations Machine.)