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Difference between acronyms and initials?

I have always believed that an acronym had to be a pronouncable word, like RADAR or LASER, not just a set of initials like IBM or CIA, but I see more and more references that suggest that this is not a generally held belief.

Even the OED seems confused:-

1. A group of initial letters used as an abbreviation for a name or expression, each letter or part being pronounced separately; an initialism (such as ATM, TLS).

2. A word formed from the initial letters of other words or (occas.) from the initial parts of syllables taken from other words, the whole being pronounced as a single word (such as NATO, RADA).

Although Chambers states: acronym (noun) a word made from the first letters or syllables of other words, and usually pronounced as a word in its own right, eg NATO.

Compare abbreviation, contraction, initialism.

Let the games begin! :-)

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I actually never thought of that until you mentioned it. I agree. What would the "acronyms" we make up to try and remember concepts or facts for tests categorize as? Would those still be acronyms despite rarely being a pronounceable word in itself?

nblor May 25, 2012, 3:28pm

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I think what you mean are mnemonics.

Hairy Scot May 25, 2012, 3:31pm

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I think that initialism is a form of acronyms (?) and mnemonics like-wise can be a subgroup of acronyms.

I can be wrong - it happened before.

DAPster June 1, 2012, 9:58am

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There is a world of difference between acronyms, mnemonics, and initials or initialism.

Perfect Pedant June 1, 2012, 2:22pm

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@ Perfect Pedant

I don't agree - but maybe you can convince me otherwise?
That is, by explaining the difference.

DAPster June 1, 2012, 11:01pm

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Definition of ACRONYM
: a word (as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term
Definition of MNEMONICS
: a technique of improving the memory
Definition of INITIALISM
: an abbreviation formed from initial letters

Perfect Pedant June 1, 2012, 11:37pm

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Nice - though that just stresses my point.

Initialism covers based on the definition you give a use of some acronyms (?). E.g. NATO is also an abbreviation formed from initial letters.

Mnemonics can use acronyms/initials as a technique to remember something. E.g. PV = nRT (Poste Vand "er lig" Ni Røde Tuborg (tap water equals nine red Tuborg)).

So though the definitions differ, the actual use overlap.

You disagree?

DAPster June 1, 2012, 11:45pm

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I agree that all acronyms consist of initials, but not all sets of initials are acronyms.
As for mnemonics: anything can be used as a mnemonic, initials, acronyms, words, phrases, number or sequences of number, rhymes, etc etc.
While your contention about usage may have some merit it does not make all three the same.

Hairy Scot June 2, 2012, 1:15pm

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@ Hairy Scot.

I agree.
Though - can you mention a set of initials that are not an acronym (according to the definition given by Perfect Pedant). Just to enlighten me more about the
English language.

DAPster June 2, 2012, 8:24pm

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I think I covered that in my initial post.
I believe that an acronym has to be a pronouncable word.
Thus, RADAR, LASER, NATO, RADA, NASA, are all acronyms and FBI, IBM, NSA, ATM, are not (except perhaps by some verbal contortions).
The word acronym first appeared in the early 1940s just after RADAR came into general use and rumour has it that the word was coined by a member of the US military working on a RADAR installation.

Hairy Scot June 2, 2012, 8:45pm

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It is a good point. I like that way of distinguishing it.
Do you know the etymology of "acronym"?

DAPster June 2, 2012, 9:21pm

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From Chambers:-
acronym noun a word made from the first letters or syllables of other words, and usually pronounced as a word in its own right, eg NATO. Compare abbreviation, contraction, initialism. acronymic adj.
ETYMOLOGY: 1940s: from Greek akron point or tip + onyma name.

Hairy Scot June 2, 2012, 9:25pm

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See - even though I like the way you make the distinction, the history of the word "acronym" seem to support that pure initials (FBI) can be an acronym as well (?) (the tip of a name (?)).

DAPster June 2, 2012, 9:35pm

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I think you'll find that in English those words that end in "nym" refer to words rather than initials.
Homonym, antonym, synonym etc.
The English language has a number of areas where differences in interpretation can occur.
As I said, it is my belief that an acronym denotes a pronouncable word.
That there are others who believe differently is no surprise.
Even the OED allows for that possibility.

Hairy Scot June 2, 2012, 9:52pm

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Acronyms don't have to be JUST initials; initialisms may not be other letters other than the first. Acronym is the broader term.
So the acronym "STFU" is also an initialism. But the acronym RADAR isn't an initialism.
I have never heard (or even thought about it) that an acronym has to be "pronounceable" as a word.
I'm sure there is some term for acronyms and even initialisms which ARE pronounceable, but I don't know what THAT is.

ceegee July 16, 2012, 6:41am

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An acronym is a pronounceable word which may be formed by initials or parts of other words.

It is sometimes wrongly applied to any set of initials.

Mediator July 17, 2012, 11:22am

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Hello. There are several good Web sites that are available that will give your the actual meanings (in words) of hundreds of different acronyms (pronounceaable) and initialisms. For example, you enter SONAR, and the site responds with
SOund NAvigation and Ranging.

Out of scores of different acronyms, we have these as examples:

Some of these have become common nouns in English (and some other languages), too, such as radar, sonar, laser, and maser.

Some acronyms have more than one meaning: RIP = Rest In Peace, and also RIP = Routing Information Protocol - in computer communication networks.

The acronym LEM = Lunar Excursion Module retained its pronunciation even after NASA change to the initialism LM = Lunar Module.

In his writings of science fiction during the 1940s and 50s, Isaac Asimov worked backwards from the name of the first electronic digital computer, UNIVAC, to get the specious meaning "one vacuum tube" (using the American terminology). UNIVAC actually had thousands of vacuum tubes. Then Asimov created another specious acronym MULTIVAC, meaning "multiple vacuum tubes" because MULTIVAC was supposed to be ever so much more powerful than UNIVAC was. Asimov wrote a long series of short stories about MULTIVAC, and his computer grew to be a worldwide set of huge interconnected computers. Holy cow! Asimov didn't know it, but his huge MULTIVAC grew to become an Internet and a World Wide Web a long time before anyone even dreamed of creating such a real thing.

Asimov died in April 1992 when the Internet was still very much of a fledgling thing in the United States and Canada, and practically nobody had a real Internet host in his own home. He would have been fascinated by what it turned into. In contrast, Sir Arthur C. Clarke lived about 15 years longer, and he was fascinated by the Internet, and he had Internet computers right in his own home on the island of Ceylon. His connections went via communications satellites, too.

In Asimov's S.F. stories, MULTIVAC did not stop growing when it covered the Earth with connections, but it also expanded to human colonies and research stations on the Moon, Mars, Mercury, the asteroids, and the satellites of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. Next, MULTIVAC went intersteller to human colonies on planets around other stars, and all of its parts stayed in communication via links on "hyperwave radio" through hyperspace. Read a lot of the stories, and then the ultimate one comes in one of Asimov's masterpieces, a story called THE LAST QUESTION.
I will leave that one up to you to find out for yourself.
There is probably an article about it in , too.

D. A. Wood July 18, 2012, 9:49am

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Acronyms from G.I. (soldier's) slang of World War II: (and beyond)

FUBAR = F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition.
This one is heard many times in the film SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

FUBU = F***ed Up Beyond all Understanding.
Some people disagree with me about this one, but I read about it in an article that was specifically about American soldier's slang of World War II

Example usage. "These orders from headquarters are completely FUBU."
(Yes, they don't make sense, and they are stupid, too.)

A similar one came from soldiers of the Dominions of the British Empire who fought in World War I (Canadians, Aussies, New Zealanders, South Africans, Kenyans, etc.)
An Imperial F*** Up.
These were much worse than the ones that came from mere brigadiers, colonels, lieutenant colonels, majors, captains, etc. An Imperial F*** Up.was a bloody bad one that came from field marshalls, Cabinet members, and above.

I don't know if the soldiers of the Commonwealths during World War II used the term "Imperial" or something diffferent, because many of them considered their countries to be separated from the Empire by then. For example, in 1942 the Australian government decided to withdraw nearly all of its soldiers, airmen, and ships from Africa and Europe to being them back to fight the Japanese. Also, the supreme military commander for Australia was chosen to be the American, General MacArthur. Naturally, the U.K. was not too happy about all of this, but the Commonwealth of Australia had the authority to do it. The Australians and the Americans were close allies in that part of the world (incl. New Guinea), especially during 1942 - 44.


D. A. Wood July 18, 2012, 10:22am

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"Clarke lived about 15 years longer, and he was fascinated by the Internet, and he had Internet computers right in his own home on the island of Ceylon" It might have been Ceylon when Clarke moved there in 1956 but since 1972 it has been called Sri Lanka. Do keep up.

Jeremy Wheeler August 14, 2012, 5:24am

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The vogue for pronounceable acronyms has swept the board. In the past, though, pronounceability was not necessary. Things change.

Skeeter Lewis October 30, 2012, 5:56pm

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FBI is pronounceable. Part your lips slightly and say with me 'eff bee eye'. It is an acronym, see?

I hear that S**T is an acronym for 'Store High In Transit', coined during some era, in reference to cow dung that was previously stored below deck during sea-travel. The gasses from the damp cow-dung would cause an explosion when you went down there with an open-flame lamp.

After suffering this for a bit, some smart person figured it out and decided that all cow dung would be Stored High In Transit from then on. Hence, S**T.

Probably a load of horse s**t but I like it.

El Boogie October 31, 2012, 7:15am

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When did they first start? KFC being a later such name. IBM,FBI, CIA........

wendy1 July 18, 2017, 9:34pm

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I loved reading this commentary. Surprisingly there is no mention of SNAFU. From WWII and popularized in Catch 22

Eala November 3, 2017, 9:18am

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