Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 93: AWESOME — Acronymic Words Encode Some Obscure Matters Easily

This week, we’re going to talk about a special type of word formation called an acronym. According to the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie, an acronym is an abbreviation pronounced as if it were a single word.

The classic example is this: The initials for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus are S-C-U-B-A, giving us the word scuba.

Other examples include:
radar, from radio detection and ranging.
NATO, from North Atlantic Treaty Organization
AIDS, from auto-immune deficiency syndrome
UNESCO, from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
yuppie, from young urban professional

Sometimes the term acronym is inaccurately applied to abbreviations that are not really acronyms. According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage,
“The test of a true acronym is often assumed to be that it should be pronounceable as a word within the normal word patterns of English.”

As such, abbreviations such as FBI, VCR and IBM are not acronyms because each letter is pronounced separately. They’re called simply abbreviations or initialisms.

It turns out that creating words from acronyms is a fairly recent practice. “[Acronyms] are surprisingly modern,” says linguist and author Michael Quinion, who joined us on the program. “The first ones that we know about are really 20th century, and most of the early ones are military.”

Quinion cites the term AWOL, for absent without leave, as being one of the first examples. According to Quinion, this term is first recorded as a spoken word in about 1917. But the creation of acronyms didn’t really accelerate until World War II, when terms like sonar and radar were coined to describe emerging technologies. “Indeed, the term acronym itself is Second World War in origin,” Quinion says, “from Greek words meaning ‘the tip’ and ‘name’: akros, the tip or topmost part of something, plus –onym, which is name. Acronym is a word formed from the tip or the beginning bits of other words.”

Given the relatively recent history of acronyms, Quinion tends to chuckle at stories that try to explain the origins of words using acronyms, such as the yarn about the word cop coming from the abbreviation constable on patrol. “A lot of these pseudo-explanations are actually invented as humorous stories,” Quinion laughs. “No one I think really ever believes that golf stands for ‘gentlemen only, ladies forbidden’. It’s just a joke, but it plays on the idea that there are a lot of words in the English language which do come from acronyms. Those kinds of terms are everywhere now, but before the 20th century, they really are unknown.”

It should be noted that a good deal of serendipity and creativity goes into the making of some acronyms. For example, the non-smoking organization Action on Smoking and Health goes by the appropriate acronym ASH. The items given to attendees at conferences are known collectively as swag, for stuff we all get. And the organization Students Against Destructive Decisions—a group that campaigns against underage drinking, illegal drug use and teen violence—is known by its acronym, SADD.

An example of a not-so-good acronym (and deliberately so) comes from The Simpsonsem>, when Marge created the group, “Springfieldians for Non-Violence, Understanding and Helping... or SNUH.”

Strictly speaking, a pronounceable word is called an acronym; sets of stand-alone letters are initialisms. But given the popularity of the word acronym, some dictionaries and even Fowler’s Modern English Usage have become somewhat forgiving:
“The limitations of the term [acronym] being not widely know to the general public, acronym is also often applied to abbreviations that are familiar but are not pronounceable as words.”

Ultimately, though, it’s probably best to restrict the term acronym to those abbreviations you can say as a single word. Abbreviations where each letter is pronounced individually—such as DVD, USA, NHL or EU—are more accurately called initialisms.

And if someone offers you a tale about the origin of a word and the explanation happens to include an acronym, it’s best to take that story with a grain of salt.

Sources: Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; Port Out, Starboard Home by Michael Quinion (also released under the title Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds); Urban Dictionary: Fularious Street Slang Defined by Aaron Peckham.

Music: "A-B-C" by The Jackson Five; "Alphabet St." by Prince.

MPR News

Listen Now

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland