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I was wondering if there was a word to describe acronyms or abbreviations that have been used so often that they become words themselves, or at least that the vast majority of people do not realize that the words are in fact abbreviations.

Examples would be things like:

  • LASER: "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation"
  • RADAR: "RAdio Detection And Ranging"
  • MODEM: "MOdulator-DEModulator"
  • SCUBA: "Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus"
  • CARE (Package): "Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe"
  • TASER: "Thomas A Swift's Electronic Rifle"

The question came up when reading this other question regarding the use of 'app' to describe a mobile application. 'App' is becoming another example of such an abbreviation which has been used very widely to mean a specific type of application (one for mobile devices) and many people likely do not immediately see the connection anymore.

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That's a great question. I looked all over the internet, at wikipedia, snopes, google, but none of the discussions that I found referencing commonly used or unrecognized acronyms used any special name for them. Maybe you should invent one... –  Elijah Feb 24 '14 at 8:12
... or maybe that right there is a subtle hint that you should not, as obviously everyone happily makes do without. –  RegDwigнt Feb 24 '14 at 15:00
deacronymization –  Greg Lee Feb 23 at 15:50

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There is indeed a word and that word is...acronym.

Acronyms are specifically words formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as words themselves. Your examples fall into this category.

Quite often, these words aren't written in capitals: laser, for example, tends to be written in lower case, whereas Nato is often written with just a capital N.

A set of initials that doesn't create a new word, eg FBI, UN, BBC, CNN, is called an initialism.

The 'app' example is slightly different. This is an abbreviation where a word has simply been shortened. More established examples include phone, bike, fridge, gym, photo. As far as I'm aware, there's no special word for these.

(I'm writing from a British English perspective.)

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There is an opposing viewpoint at this (Difference between an acronym and abbreviation?) earlier thread. There are three polysemic/hyponymic definitions of 'acronym'. The loosest would allow FBI, ISA and radar. Perhaps the most commonly accepted would allow ISA and radar. The strictest I've come across would only allow words that have been assimilated into the lexicon as common nouns, such as radar and laser. There aren't many of these. There is no concensus yet. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 24 '14 at 10:53
An acronym is only pronounced as a word, it's not a word per se. The OP's list is significant in that the items are de facto words today, other acronyms are not. –  Kris Feb 24 '14 at 11:56
@Kris, we could add "PIN" to the OP's list, which is considered a word by many, but you can never say "PIN number" cause you know for a fact the "PIN" is a number, so even if people consider it a word it still is an acronym. –  Euclides Mulémbwè Feb 24 '14 at 14:54
In Spanish, many people consider that initial which become words are called acronyms. –  jinawee Feb 24 '14 at 15:20
@Euclides - RE: You can never say "PIN number"... Oh, yes you can! People say it all the time. It may drive the pedants batty, but it gets used. You can find it in published books, you can find it on bank websites. The same goes for terms such as "ISBN number," "RAM memory," and "HIV virus." Mind you, I'm not recommending such usages, but I am saying that RAS syndrome is a fact of life (fact of language?). –  J.R. Feb 25 '14 at 0:04

When an acronym gains wide acceptance and gets listed on standard dictionaries as a word rather than a short form, e.g., laser, you know you have a word.

The ultimate test could be the appearance of inflections: laser -> lased, lasing.

Until then, it has to be content being an acronym.

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Yes, but is there a term to represent the linguistic shift (probably the wrong term) from simple acronym to full-fledged word? –  Doc Feb 24 '14 at 13:57
I'd call that 'assimilation' -- linguistics may have given it a name. –  Kris Feb 25 '14 at 5:58

There are many common examples which are older than laser. The word snafu, for example, was originally an obscene U.S. Army reference (situation normal -- all f'ed up"), and fad is purportedly originally an acronym for "for a day". Some terms, such as AWOL, seem to be stuck in between-- they are almost used as words, but equally almost always capitalized. Arguably the most commonly borrowed English word, "ok" is generally considered an acronym for the slang phrase "orl korrect".

I refer to them as maws (matriculated acronystic words), which reuses an otherwise rarely used three-letter word (how often does the stomach of a ruminant come up in everyday conversation?), and makes a nice pun on English' propensity to easily digest and swallow up words, whatever their source.

I think it is interesting to look at the reverse phenomena: how an otherwise common word becomes an acronym. Creating an acronym out of a common word seems to be a favorite of computer scientists. For example, they currently use SOAP (simple object access protocols) for internet traffic. Years ago, programmers referred to large database objects as LOBs, and Binary Large Objects as BLOBs (originally all caps, but now frequently referred to in lower case as blobs). Although the term is only used in specialized circles, it really has become its word there. Legislatures also get into the act of naming to create an acronym. For example, the Revoke Excessive Policies that Encroach on American Liberties Act thus can be referred to as the REPEAL Act.

In my opinion the reverse terms are begging to be called RAWs, or Reverse Acronystic Words.

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