Words Formed from the Initial Letters of Other Words

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The word acronym was coined in 1943 by Bell Laboratories to refer to new words like RADAR that had been created from the initials of the words in phrases.

Distinctions can be made between initial letter constructions that can be pronounced as words (RADAR) and those which can be pronouced only as letters (FBI).

Strictly speaking, RADAR is an “acronym,” while FBI is an “initialism.”

Unless one is addressing an academic audience, the word acronym may be used to refer to any word formed from the initials of other words. For one thing, acronym is a more familiar term than initialism. For another, many words formed from initials defy easy categorization. Some don’t even have widely agreed-upon names to describe them.

Letter Combinations…

… pronounced as a word
WAC – Women’s Army Corps
NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organization
LASER – Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation

…pronounced as initials
FBI – Federal Bureau of Investigation
ATM – Automated Teller Machine
BBC – British Broadcasting Corporation
AFL-CIO – American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations

…pronounced partly as letters, partly as syllables
JPEG – Joint Photographic Experts Group
MS-DOS – Microsoft Disk Operating System
CD-ROM – Compact Disc read-only memory

…pronounced as words by some speakers; as letters by others:
FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions
LED – Light-Emitting Diode
ASAP – As Soon As Possible
IRA – Individual Retirement Account
SAT – Scholastic Achievement Test

…pronounced as letters and words
AAA (Triple A) – American Automobile Association
NAACP (N double-A CP) – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

…formed from letters within a word as well as initial letters
DNA DeoxyriboNucleic Acid
SONAR – SOund Navigation And Ranging
XML – eXtensible Markup Language

I’ll worry about specific labels for the different types when I’m called upon to write an academic treatise on the subject. For ordinary conversation and informal writing, I’ll go on calling them all acronyms.

For those who like to make nice distinctions in such matters, this Wikipedia article is a wealth of information.

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8 thoughts on “Words Formed from the Initial Letters of Other Words”

  1. Good post. It’s always a treat to read about another angle on our language. The word scuba came to my mind, as I was reading—Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

    The military is infamous for its use of acronyms. When my son was in the Navy, he would occasionally send me notes written entirely in acronyms, because he knew it would amuse me to research and figure out what he meant!

  2. Interesting article–is there still an Irish Republican Army (IRA)? There are lots of acronyms and initialisms in education also–ESL, ELL, IEP, SpEd, etc. We used to call it “educationese”.

  3. Great post. I never knew that there was actually a name for initialisms.

    We use acronyms and initialisms all the time in my line of work (air traffic controller). An airplane I’m working may request any of the following:

    * ILS approach (Instrument Landing System) – Pronounced I-L-S. A precision approach that gives both vertical and lateral guidance.
    * TACAN approach (TACtical Air Navigation) – Pronounced Tak-an. A non-precision approach that provides only lateral guidance.
    * Holding over a VOR (VHF Omni-directional Radio Range) – Pronounced V-O-R. A type of navigation aid that connects airways.
    * GPS navigation (Global Positioning System): Satellite-based, commonly used navigation system. Pronounced G-P-S.
    * PAR approach (Precision Approach Radar): Pronounced P-A-R. An approach where the airplane is ‘talked down’ to the runway by a controller watching them on a special scope.

    We also use both VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) radios to communicate with our aircraft, though we commonly refer to them as Victor and Uniform on the frequency.

  4. It’s amazing the different approaches to this. I always call those that are pronouncable as words ‘acronyms’, whereas I refer to initialised abbreviations as just ‘abbreviations’.
    I come from a military aerospace background and the number of abbreviations and acronyms is astounding – the sector is littered with TLAs (Three Letter Abbreviations). I once printed out a compiled abbreviations document (yes, a document which was purely page after page of abbreviation lists) that ran to over 100 pages for a single recon aircraft project.

  5. Sandy-You’re right about education using many acronyms, often to the point that non-educators may not understand what he or she is reading. This is a communication issue and reflects a larger problem of not considering readers’ needs.

    Sometimes, even the “spelled out” version doesn’t do much for comprehension. Using your examples, “ELL” is the acronym for English Language Learner. But what is an “English Language Learner”? Those not “in the know” may assume that this is any person who does not have a perfected knowledge of the English language, which is everyone.

    More to the point, though, is how these acronyms are used in speech and writing.

    “ELL” is stated as letters, not as the word sound “L.”

    “SpEd” is stated as a single word.

    The acronym for Physical Education is stated as letters: “P.E.” Actually, “P.E.” adds another level of complexity because it is always spelled with periods, unlike many other acronyms that have become part of the English lexicon. For example, “scuba” is no longer spelled “S.C.U.B.A.” Perhaps if P.E. were pronounced as a word (rhyming with “pea”), the periods would drop out of the common spelling.

    “LEA,” the acronym for “Local Education Agency” (i.e., school district), could be pronounced as a single word, but it isn’t, nor is it typically spelled out with periods.

    This might make an interesting socio-linguistic study for a graduate dissertation.

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