What is an Acronym?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Abbreviations are used to provide a shortened form of a word or phrase. One style of abbreviation combines the initial letters of each word in a series. In cases in which the resulting abbreviation is pronounced by saying each of the letters in order, this is called initialism. An example is the abbreviation for extrasensory perception, which is ESP.

The word "laser" is an acronym meaning "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.".
The word "laser" is an acronym meaning "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.".

Cases in which this abbreviation is pronounced as a word in and of itself, form a different class of abbreviation, referred to as an acronym. Acronyms were first used in the 1940’s. The name comes from two Greek words, akron, meaning “end or tip,” and onumon, meaning “name.”

Some acronyms are common enough that they might not be known as such, including "scuba".
Some acronyms are common enough that they might not be known as such, including "scuba".

In order to form a pronounceable word, an acronym may leave out “little words” in the series by not providing a letter to represent them. An example is NASDAQ system. The actual phrase is: "National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotation System" but, as you can see, the word "of" is not represented in the acronym.

Acronym usage is popular in text messages.
Acronym usage is popular in text messages.

Another liberty that acronyms may take is to include an initial for each part of a compound word. Some abbreviations combine initialism with an acronym. CD-Rom, in which the first two letters are pronounced as letter names, and the last three are pronounced as if they were a word, is an example. JPEG and MS-DOS follow suit.

Another variation is the use of more than one letter from each word in order to create an acronym that is pronounceable as a word. This is true, for example with the acronym of lower power mode, which is not “lpm,” but “lopomo,” using the first two letters of each word in the sequence.

In some cases, an acronym is used so often that some people may not recognize it as an acronym. This has been known to happen with the following:

• scuba — self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
• radar — radio detecting and ranging
laser — light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation

Posh may be the word that has caused the greatest argument in the world of the acronym. Some claim that posh is an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home,” reportedly the preferred seating for ship passengers traveling from England to India and home in the 1800s. This etymology is not documented and is disputed, although there is no clear and accepted alternative.

Some abbreviations combine initialism with an acronym, such as CD-ROM.
Some abbreviations combine initialism with an acronym, such as CD-ROM.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I understand that POTUS, the acronym for President Of The United States, was first seen in writing in the The Birmingham Age-Herald (Alabama) on 14 Apr. 1895.


One place where you find a lot of acronyms is text messaging. There are so many that you can't even keep up with all the acronym meanings, and they change constantly.

Of course, some of the most common ones like the TTYL acronym (talk to you later) or LOL (laughing out loud) pretty much everybody knows, but it seems like there are new ones every day.


A fun activity for children can be to use their name as an acronym.

All you do is take the letters and then think of words to associate with them.

For example, John could be "Jolly, Open-minded, Helpful, Nice". This is a good activity for the first day of class if you're a teacher. You can even have the kids illustrate their acronyms!


For those of you business owners out there hoping to get creative, they have acronym makers where you can type in a few key words and it will spit out an acronym at you.

Just be sure to really think about your acronym before you decide to go with it though -- and acronym generator doesn't have a censor, so you can end up with something completely ridiculous or inappropriate.


Excellent article- I just want to add that there many common acronyms.

For example, a military acronym is AWOL, which stands for absent with out leave. This means that the person enlisted in the armed forces left their position without a formal discharge.

Using the term AWOL is easier than mentioning the entire phrase. The same is true for medical acronyms.

For example, the AMA stands for the American Medical Association. Another commonly used medical acronym is CPR, which stands for cardio pulmonary resuscitation. The phrase CPR is so common that many people may not remember what the letters actually stand for.

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