Acronym to Real Word

From Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, 11th Edition:

acronym (n.) a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive or major parts of a compound term

Put more simply, an acronym is an abbreviation that becomes a word of its own. And please take note: Acronymns differ from initialisms (think FBI, JFK, DVD, LOL). How so? Acronyms are pronounceable as words, whereas initialisms are voiced only as letters. The most recent editions of dictionaries confirm the growing interchangeability of these two terms – but as a writer and editor I want to know one from the other, and you too may want to stash this info-bite in your knowledge bank.

Newcomers All

In the history of English, acronyms are new kids on the block. The year 1918 saw the first recorded use of one of the earliest – AWOL, for “away without leave.”  Initialisms took off during the Great Depression as shorthand for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), President Roosevelt (FDR), and more. A little later, actual acronyms arriving on the scene included two foreshadowing the IT Revoution, the first in 1946 and the second in 1951: ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator, the first industrial computer) and UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer).

The acronymic words below have entered the language over the past 70 years. The seminal phrase comes first and is followed by the date of the word’s first recorded use; thereafter, a sentence containing the word puts its current use in context.

  • radar (radio detecting and ranging; 1941) “Some of the baseball players in District 6 flew under the radar.”
  • snafu** (situation normal: all fucked up; 1943) “A hospital staff cutback was blamed for the snafu in the test-result.”
  • scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus; 1952) “Scuba divers in Tonga encounter hundreds of marine species when exploring the kingdom’s coral reefs.”
  • laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation; 1957) “The laser attack weapon has been shown in tests to disable patrol boats and blind surveillance drones.”
  • nimby (not in my backyard; 1980) “Ours is a nimby world: Wind farms are terrific, say the well-heeled, but don’t even think of putting windmills in view of our verandah.”
  • yuppie (young urban professional + pie; 1981) “Chronic fatigue syndrome is no longer thought of as “yuppie flu.”

* If you’re interested in checking out a couple of bastardized acronyms, open the Goodies Bag and pull out  Notes on the F-Word.

**Frustrated by the problems that came with wartime service, World War II army pilots coined this acronym-turned-word. Nevertheless, a number of reference books bowed to delicacy (or censors) and replaced fucked up with fouled up – but do not believe it. The salty soldiers of the 1940s were about as likely shun the F-word as they were to gather daily for afternoon tea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *