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Someone was just asking if there were words like lol formed, before, the txtmsg era.

Of course there were - for example "laser".

However .. in fact what was the earliest example of this in English?

Words pronounced as full words - but which started as initials or the initial parts of a series of words.

What is the earliest example of a word like "radar"?

Is there anything like "laser" (laser: 1960) before, let's say, the electric era? Just a wild guess -- did this fad perhaps start with WW2?

So where and when did this begin in English, and what is the earliest example?


Note -- here's a somewhat related question, but the information there is utterly useless. It's astounding that people can't grasp the difference between laser or lol, and, CIA or INRI.

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    There may be something in what you say. The earliest example of the word acronym - per the OED - is 1940. The one I kept thinking of, whilst reading your OP was Radar - Radio detection and ranging. Its entry in the OED dates it from 1940 too. But somehow I would be amazed if there were not pre-war examples of acronyms. The T.U.C. (Trades Unions Congress) dates from 1910 - but it is never pronounced tuc - always T.U.C. - perhaps for this very reason. – WS2 Aug 20 '15 at 19:32
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    Beware, the German word akronym dates from 1921 - OED. – WS2 Aug 20 '15 at 19:34
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    The NAAFI has its origins as early as 1892. Pronounced naffi, it provides canteens, and small provisions shops attached to the British armed services. Anyone who has been in the services refers to it as the naffi. e.g. Let's nip down to the naffi for a cup o' tea. What I am not clear about was whether it was referred to as the naffi before 1939. – WS2 Aug 20 '15 at 19:48
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    POSH (port outbound starboard home) is not really an acronym, but was believed to be one as early as 1938, so they must have been fairly widespread at that time. – Peter Shor Aug 20 '15 at 20:28
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    I would be willing to bet that the Catholic church had several, from Latin. The thing is, pronouncing an acronym tends to not be documented, because what is written is the individual letters, regardless of how it's spoken. (Certainly, beginning with the runup to WWII it became common to pronounce acronyms and abbreviations -- the military was awash in abbreviations, and GIs were always willing to play games with the nomenclature.) – Hot Licks Aug 30 '15 at 0:31
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See: Wikipedia for a good discourse on the historical use of acronyms. I knew the Catholic church used the acronym INRI on top of the crucifix for at least 500 to 600 years. A qoute from the Wikipedia article: "Acronyms 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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    Isn't there an important difference between abbreviations and acronyms? A proper acronym is an abbreviation pronounced as a word. Is "INRI" pronounced as "Innree", or "SPQR" as "Spucker"? – Margana Aug 20 '15 at 19:52
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    Hmm, it's a great observation about the Roman abbreviations. But this really doesn't answer my question, at all, I'm afraid. (For example, quite simply -- was "laser" the first word that, as my question asks, "came from" an acronym? – Fattie Aug 20 '15 at 20:09
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    @Joe Blow. Clearly not. The Wiki article spells it all out. The early Christians in Rome, most of whom were Greek rather than Latin speakers, used the image of a fish as a symbol for Jesus in part because of an acronym—fish in Greek is ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ), which was said to stand for Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ (Iesous CHristos THeou hUios Soter: "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior"). This interpretation dates from the 2nd and 3rd centuries and is preserved in the catacombs of Rome. – WS2 Aug 20 '15 at 20:31
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    I guess you didn't completely read the Wikipedia article. It goes on to say: "The Hebrew language has a long history of formation of acronyms pronounced as words, stretching back many centuries. The Hebrew Bible ("Old Testament") is known as "Tanakh", an acronym composed from the Hebrew initial letters of its three major sections: Torah (five books of Moses), Nevi'im (prophets), and K'tuvim (writings). Many rabbinical figures from the Middle Ages onward are referred to in rabbinical literature by their pronounced acronyms..." – Terry Wendt Aug 20 '15 at 20:53
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    Hi Terry - that's fascinating that Yiddish has made WORDS (sounded out AS WORDS, I assume that is what you mean) from acronyms, from ye olde times. I'm really asking about English here - but that's fascinating – Fattie Aug 21 '15 at 0:56
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An acronym is an abbreviation (or intialism) that's pronounced as a word. They're a relatively modern invention; there are a few earlier examples, but their use really took off during WWII.

INRI?

INRI may be old, but when was INRI introduced into the English language? What evidence is there for people pronouncing it as "inree" in the English language?


WWI

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.


POTUS & SCOTUS

There are at least a couple of acronyms pronounced as words which predate World War I: POTUS (President of the United States) and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States), from the Phillips Code used "for the rapid transmission of press reports by telegraph", are from 1895 and perhaps 1879. I'd guess that they weren't originally pronounced as words, but they are now.

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    Does anyone know whether the Soviet state security agency whose Western initial were OGPU (created in 1922, and the predecessor of the NKVD and (even later) the KGB was pronounced in the west as "O-G-P-U" or as ogpu? Its parent agency was the GPU, so English speakers may have been inclined toward the initialism pronunciation at first, but I believe that ogpu was used at a certain point before the agency's reinvention as NKVD in 1934. – Sven Yargs Aug 31 '15 at 1:33
  • Before the 1930s POTUS and SCOTUS may only have been pronounced as words by telegraph operators. Consider the following joke from the Commercial Telegraphers' Journal from 1918, which at the very least shows that these acronyms were not widely used. The sender complying with the request, ran through a bunch of "code" and wound up with "potus." The following conversation took place: "Bk. What's potus?" "President of the United States." "Bk. No; Wilson" is." – Peter Shor Sep 1 '15 at 17:40
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+150

Edit: Updated Answer

After more research, I verified that the OED does observe the distinction between initialisms and acronyms, invited by the distinct senses (in the OED) of 'initialism' and 'acronym' (as abbreviations pronounced as individual letters in the former, and abbreviations pronounced as words in the latter), in its Etymology notes. I respect that distinction in this answer.

That verity enabled the simplification of research into the earliest acronyms appearing in the OED. In the following historical breakdown, I only include words with clear, unequivocated acronymic etymologies. Thus,

Of words originating in English between c1000 and 1600, no acronyms appear in the OED.

Of words originating in English between 1600 and 1800, the noun 'abjad' is undoubtedly an acronym. It derives from the Arabic word 'abjad' (also acronymic), denoting the Arabic alphabet: the word is an acronymic abbreviation formed from the initial letters of the names of the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet. The first textual evidence of its use appeared in 1793:

1793 C. F. Greville Brit. India Analyzed I. 87 The first letter of the month Ahmudee is Alif, which, in the Abjud, stands for 1.

(op. cit.)

Thus, 'abjad' has the honor of being the earliest acronym in English documented by the OED. No other serious contenders for the earliest acronym were to be found in that period (1600-1800).

Being curious, I continued the exercise.

Of words originating between 1800-1900, there are several acronyms. In historical order, those are 'Tanach' (1835), 'SCOTUS' (1879), 'OUDS' (1885), 'AWOL' (1894), and 'POTUS' (1895).

A further search for acronymic words originating between 1900-2000 returned 287 results. I did not visit each entry (as I did for the earlier, more managable quantities of results) to verify that the reference to 'acronym' in the Etymology was clear and unequivocal, and to verify the date of the earliest acronymic use of the word.

Original answer

The question invites argument: "the earliest example" in the question could resolve as the date the abbreviation was first pronounced as a word, or the first recorded appearance of the abbreviation later to be pronounced as a word. If the former, how is that date to be documented?

Anyway, I'll throw a word into the ring:

AWOL, n. and adj.

...

1894 Rep. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Misc. Documents House of Representatives 1894-5 (1895) 431 November 25: Patient left the ward this date without leave. December 5: Patient returned from A. W. O. L.

(op. cit.)

Note that the OED distinguishs 'acronym' and 'initialism' on the basis of whether or not each letter or part is pronounced separately: for initialisms each letter or part is pronounced separately; acronyms, on the other hand, may have each letter or part pronounced separately or the whole may be pronounced as a single word.

Thus, my rather shaky assumption is that where the OED gives an etymology as "acronym" or "initialism", it maintains that distinction. This assumption is supported by the etymology given for 'awol':

Etymology: As noun, acronym < the initial letters of absence without leave ....

In early use sometimes an initialism; compare quot. 1949 at sense B. 2, and also:

1921 Outing June 137/1, I was surprised to find one day that unless I left the following morning to rejoin my regiment I would be an ‘a-w-o-l’.

1957 B. Evans & C. Evans Dict. Contemp. Amer. Usage 9/2 awol..in World War I..was pronounced as four letters; in World War II, it was pronounced as a word.

(op. cit., italics mine)

Rather than helping, however, the OED's distinction leaves the question of when an initialism first becomes an acronym up in the air. Presumably, the question is unresolved because documentation will rarely answer it, and because the question is extraneous to the OED's primary concern with when the acronym/initialism was first recognizably used as a noun (adjective, whatever) as documented in textual records.

For somewhat hesitant and possibly unreliable support of my claim that awol was the first or among the first acronyms, as well as a disquisition emphasizing the distinction between acronyms and initialisms, see "Acronyms that became words".

  • AWOL today is often said as "a-double-u-oh-ell", or, as "Aywhol". how was it said then? – Fattie Aug 30 '15 at 3:42
  • BTW awol is a great suggestion. I have no idea though when it was first pronounced "Aywhol". – Fattie Aug 30 '15 at 3:44
  • @JoeBlow, that is a tough question. One of the quotations I included from the OED, itself from the 1957 Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, says it was pronounced with each letter during WWI and as one word during WWII. We're left to assume the change was sometime between the wars. I'm not sure I believe the source, anyhow; in order to verify the claim from that source, I'd have to find the book and see what else they have to say, or do some stunning research that's beyond my means. – JEL Aug 30 '15 at 4:37
  • @JoeBlow, I'm familiar with the windfucker, aka windhover, from a distant course on GM Hopkins' poetry ("The Windhover", "...dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon...") during which the professor huhhed his way through the observation that the bird was also known as the windfucker. That professor was something of a frustrated dramatist. – JEL Aug 30 '15 at 4:54
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    @JEL: I looked up the etymology of fuck, and the OED says it was akin to a Dutch word that originally meant mock, fool, strike. The term windstriker doesn't make any sense as a term for the kestrel, whose claim to fame is one of the very few birds that hovers in place, disregarding the wind. Both windfooler and windmocker make sense, though. I revised my comment to mock, which is an earlier sense than fool, according to the OED. – Peter Shor Sep 3 '15 at 21:47
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I think @PaulDrye had the right instinct in his comment. As a Russian student, I strongly associate initialisms with Communist-era propaganda; they were the bread and butter of the political vocabulary of the Soviet Union.

However, this interesting source suggests there was a diachoric development of this phenomenon in the wake of the historical events of the early twentieth century, namely World War I (1914-1919), the Russian Revolution (1917-1920), and Roosevelt's New Deal (1930s): "The Bolshevik revolution brought about flourishing of acronyms of the syllabic type (Sovnarkom 'soviet narodnykh komissarov', 'soviet of people's commissar', Sovkhoz 'sovietsko'r'e khoziaistvo', 'soviet agrarian explotation'). Abbreviations like Comintern have been widely accepted around the world, thanks to the influence of the former Communist Party. President Franklin Roosevelt's programs spawned a torrent of “alphabet soup” that named agencies like NRA 'National Recovery Administration' [!]" (267). Rodriguez and Cannon go on to document an "explosive" growth in the use of initialisms and abbreviations around the world after World War II. They then give a very eloquently-presented linguistics of initialisms and abbreviations in English. For a comprehensive answer to your question, I can give you no better than this source, viz.:

Félix Rodriguez and Garland Cannon, ‘Remarks on the Origin and Evolution of Abbreviations and Acronyms’, in F. Fernández, et al., eds., English Historical Linguistics 1992: Papers from the 7th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, Valencia, 22-26 September, 1992 (Amsterdam, 1994), pp. 262-72.

I also learned from this source that "sigla" may be another name for the type of constructed therm you're talking about; sigloe are "abbreviations formed by initials under new forms" (265). Another interesting note: "initials can either become words formed by literation, i.e. receive a letter-by-letter pronunciation (alphabetisms or initialisms), or else turn into orthoepically pronunced acronyms" (266). So it seems, at least according to this source, that the terms you're describing are more properly "acronyms" than "alphabetisms"/"initialisms." (For more notes on this taxonomy, see Algeo, John, 1975, "The acronym and its congeners," in The First LACUS Forum, 1974, ed. Adam Makkai and Valerie B. Makkai, pp. 217–234, and López Rúa, Paula 2004 Acronyms & Co.: A typology of typologies. Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense 12: 109−129. I have identified these two sources as interesting based on a quick read, but there are potentially lots of others; this seems to be a popular topic in linguistics indeed.)

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