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What are some of the earliest acronyms and did they know it was an acronym at the time?

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Numismatists know that the inscriptions on ancient coins are abbreviated (IMP. for imperator etc). The inscriptions on Greek vases (character names or quotes) are often abbreviated as well. Inscriptions in religious paintings are often abbreviated. It's just a matter of available room. Often the first and last letters are included. May be that doesn't qualify for "acronym" though. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jul 10 '11 at 1:03
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For acronyms to gain widespread currency, you must have widespread literacy. This is why acronyms were exceedingly rare until recent history. –  Kosmonaut Jul 10 '11 at 1:53
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Not a question specific to the English language. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jul 10 '11 at 2:06

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Here is an old one:

You may know that the emblem of paleo-Christians was the fish. The Greek word for the fish is "ἰχθύς" (Ichthys). And here is what it stands for if you are one of the first Christians.

ΙΧΘΥΣ

  • I (I, Iota) : ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (Iêsoûs) « Jesus »
  • Χ (KH, Khi) : ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Khristòs) « Christ » ;
  • Θ (TH, Theta) : ΘΕΟΥ (Theoû) « God » ;
  • Υ (U, Upsilon) : ΥΙΟΣ (Huiòs) « Son » ;
  • Σ (S, Sigma) : ΣΩΤΗΡ (Sôtếr) « Saver ».

INRI
And on the same theme, the acronym INRI (so often seen on crucifixes), but Latin this time:

  • I : IESVS : Jesus
  • N : NAZARENVS : Nazarene
  • R : REX : King
  • I : IVDÆORVM : of the Jews

As you can see, acronyms are no recent invention. As for what was the first one, this is probably lost forever.

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When were these acronyms first used, and what evidence is there? –  Hugo Nov 22 '11 at 21:00
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@Hugo, for "INRI", read John 19:19 and 19:20 where the apostle claims that the inscription was written on the cross at Golgotha. So that should make it around 33AD. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Nov 23 '11 at 7:51
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@Hugo. As for ΙΧΘΥΣ, it was ubiquitous in the Roman Catacombs for instance. It suited the early Christians well because they were persecuted and they needed their recognition emblems (fish, swastika, anchor) to stay secret. The real meaning of the acrostic was thus only revealed to trustworthy believers and you won't find a nice acronym table I believe. You can have a look here (Auf Deutsh) which basically shows that various early Christian authors used to add ΙΧΘΥΣ to Jesus' name. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Nov 23 '11 at 7:53
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So the acronym INRI represents IESVS·NAZARENVS·REX·IVDÆORVM ("Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews"), that was written on a sign in Latin, Greek and Aramaic/Hebrew. None of these English translations (or their notes) mention the acronym, rather the full words. Google Ngram Viewer doesn't show any INRI/INBI/ΙΝΒΚ until late 18th century (for English/French corpora) - still old for an acronym, but not that old. Did John use the acronym or the full words? How old is the actual acronym? –  Hugo Nov 23 '11 at 10:02
    
As for ΙΧΘΥΣ, the fish is clearly an important Christian symbol, and the Greek word was used by early Christians too, but what evidence do we have for assigning the words to the initials, and when was this? –  Hugo Nov 23 '11 at 10:08

from the OED dating from 1895: SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States), POTUS (President of the United States)

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From the Phillips Code used "for the rapid transmission of press reports by telegraph", from 1895 and perhaps 1879. –  Hugo Nov 23 '11 at 10:43

As you might expect, the use of acronyms themselves long predate the coinage of the term.

For example, from Wikipedia: "Initialisms were used in Rome before the Christian era. For example, the official name for the Roman Empire, and the Republic before it, was abbreviated as SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus)."

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+1 for SPQR, still found on all manhole covers in the streets of Modern Rome. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jul 10 '11 at 2:02
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If an acronym must be a pronounceable word, how do you pronounce SPQR? Spuhkwer? –  Hugo Nov 23 '11 at 10:10

In Douglas Harper's rebuke, '"shit" is not an acronym', he writes that acronyms are very modern inventions. They were found in World War I, but still weren't the preferred way of abbreviation. Their use really took off and became common during World War II, and really accelerated during the cold war and US space programme.

He also notes the use of acrostics, a poem or puzzle such as cabal, where the first initial of an existing word is made of other significant words. However, Harper argues this wordplay had been around for centuries and they aren't really acronyms: the root word already existed and no-one was pretending the initials were the source.

Read the interesting article for more, here's a brief snippet:

Acronyms didn't becom a common method of word formation in English until World War II. The word acronym itself wasn't coined until 1943. The lack of a need for such a word suggests the degree to which acronyms previously were not a part of daily life. Their use accelerated with the U.S. space program and the Cold War, and by the time a "Dictionary of Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations" was published in 1960 it had 12,000 entries.

...

So acronyms in English are on the whole a 20th century phenomenon. Among those with pre-1900 origins are A.D. and B.C. (both Latin) and P.D.Q. (1870s). The word OK (c.1839) is another rare exception (if the most accepted theory of its origins is the right one), as is n.g. for "no good" (1838). And note how these initialisms, even after more than 170 years, are still "felt" as abbreviations, pronounced as distinct letters, and require no elaborate Internet stories.

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Acronyms are very common on Roman coins where writing space is limited: SC: Senatus Consulto. PM: Pontifex Maximus, SPQR: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus. PF Pius et Felix.... –  Alain Pannetier Φ Nov 23 '11 at 11:47
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acronym: an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word (e.g. ASCII, NASA). SC, PM, SPQR and PF are initials. –  Hugo Nov 23 '11 at 13:27

They are surprisingly modern - the word itself dates from WWII as do most acronyms.
The oldest I can find are ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corp troops in WWI)

Cabal - a group made up from the names of ministers of Britain's Charles II (mid 17C) doesn't seem to have been used as an acronym at the time.

Possibly the oldest acronym, or anti-acronym, is Yahweh

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In this case, Wikipedia is correct: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_and_New_Zealand_Army_Corps (The Canadians may have been there, but weren't part of the acronym) –  pavium Jul 10 '11 at 0:49
    
Can I suggest a better WWII acronym? SNAFU (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SNAFU). –  pavium Jul 10 '11 at 0:56
    
@pavium - thanks, fixed it. And i knew it wasn't canada but had a brain / typing disconitnuity! –  mgb Jul 10 '11 at 1:38
    
I don't follow - how is Yahweh an acronym? –  psmears Jul 10 '11 at 8:35
    
@psmears an acronym is a pronounced word made up from initials of other words. The name of God mustn't be pronounced so it's sort of an anti-acronym, Yahweh is a word made up of the initial letters of other words that you mustn't pronounce as a word –  mgb Jul 11 '11 at 3:01

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