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.

  • 1
    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, 2014 at 8:12
  • 1
    ... or maybe that right there is a subtle hint that you should not, as obviously everyone happily makes do without.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 24, 2014 at 15:00
  • deacronymization
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 23, 2015 at 15:50
  • I'm thinking that "Taser" is a brand name, and hence does not qualify for inclusion in the list (any more than "Spam" does).
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 11, 2016 at 21:51
  • It's incredibly confusing that you wrote the examples of words that are now words IN CAPITALS. You only write them in CAPITALS if they are still just acronyms, like NASA. Laser or radar or modem are now just normal words - you just write them like a word.
    – Fattie
    Jul 19, 2018 at 3:32

4 Answers 4


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.)

  • 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. Feb 24, 2014 at 10:53
  • 4
    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, 2014 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. Feb 24, 2014 at 14:54
  • In Spanish, many people consider that initial which become words are called acronyms.
    – jinawee
    Feb 24, 2014 at 15:20
  • 3
    @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, 2014 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.

  • 2
    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, 2014 at 13:57
  • I'd call that 'assimilation' -- linguistics may have given it a name.
    – Kris
    Feb 25, 2014 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.


App when used as an actual word is special case of an abbreviation. As soon as you speak about it as a word of its own, it's the result of clipping. Sadly that result does not seem to have a name itself.

In German words that only retain the first part are called 'Kopfwort' (head + word), but i can't quite make up a good English equivalent right now. An "apronym" is the German word for an acronym that is constructed to hit existing words (CARE package, PATRIOT Act). The latter would at least apply to the CARE package in the OP's question.

Not to be confused with a backronym which is an acronym you make up after the fact to stand for an existing word.

Modem is not the other hand is a actually syllabic abbreviation and not an acronym, since originally an acronym would only include first letters. If you want to count it as acronym seems a matter of perspective and definition of acronym.

The rest are classic acronyms, since the word acronym isn't around that long (1940s) it might be time to create a word for words for which most people forgot - or never knew about - it being an acronym.

With the word being self-sufficient one might name it an autononym, independonym or soveronym.


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