I was about to ask the following question:

“Is 'CIA' an acronym, or is only 'laser' an acronym?”

Now, in another question, I've been asking about the earliest use of words which started as initials but which are pronounced as words (which excludes "CIA"). For clarity's sake, I was wondering about the case of “laser” and not the “CIA” one. In the course of that discussion, naturally the word "acronym" appeared:

I became interested in the meaning of the word "acronym." Does "acronym" only mean the cases where you pronounce it like "laser" (i.e one word), or does "acronym" in fact stand for the cases like "CIA" whose initials are pronounced?

Now, in investigating that issue, my investigations lead me to believe that, in fact:

The word "acronym" is, quite simply, not well-defined between the two cases.


(1) surprisingly all "official" dictionaries, etc, poorly distinguish or simply do not distinguish, between the two cases, neither do they mention that (say) it specifically means 'both cases', nor only one case.

(2) in academic and similar use of the term, once again, no real distinction is made between the two

(3) when I asked a handful of intelligent, literate people what "acronym" means, and particularly asked them to distinguish between the two meanings, all of them in the straw poll just said the same thing, "You're right, that's weird, nobody knows what 'acronym' means." or words to that effect.

(4) It's easy to find examples where people use 'acronym' to aggressively means only the "CIA" case, and it's easy to find examples where people use 'acronym' to aggreesivly means only the "laser" case,

My questions

i) What is your opinion on which of the two cases acronym means

ii) Can you in fact, unlike me, find some "definitive" reference on the issue

iii) Can you perhaps see in some academic or article setting, clear distinction between the two possibilities?

iv) Am I sadly correct that the word 'acronym', simply, fails in general use to distinguish between the two cases?

  • There are many English words which different people use in different ways. Acronym is an example, as your post and the introduction and first section of the Wikipedia article state. It can be clearly defined, but other people will go on using it in different ways, and English has no accepted prescriptive authority. – Henry Aug 30 '15 at 16:57
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is based on the false premise that 'official dictionaries' don't make the necessary distinction. In my answer I show otherwise. – chasly - supports Monica Aug 30 '15 at 17:28
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    +1 @chaslyfromUK: in my answer to the earlier question referenced by this one, I draw out the distinction between initialism and acronym as recorded by the OED in a history of usage. This question seems senseless, frankly: i) it's not a matter of opinion; ii) the OED records a history of textual evidence which is definitive (by definition); iii) that 'acronym' is used with two senses (only one of which is similar or identical to one sense of 'initialism') is unremarkable--any word with synonyms is used likewise; iv) words don't make distinctions, their users do (or don't, as the case may be). – JEL Aug 30 '15 at 18:16
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    I’m afraid I can’t read this: it’s too ransom-notey. :) If you edit it so that it doesn't look all crazy-shouty anymore, I’ll give it a go. Your lists need work, too. – tchrist Aug 30 '15 at 18:31

You say,
'surprisingly all "official" dictionaries, etc, poorly distinguish or simply do not distinguish, between the two cases, neither do they mention that (say) it specifically means 'both cases', nor only one case.' Maybe you have looked in the wrong official dictionaries.

Acronym is clearly defined here:

Definition of acronym in English:


An abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word (e.g. ASCII, NASA). Compare with initialism.

Oxford Dictionaries

It makes the distinction between an acronym and an initialism which is defined here:

Definition of initialism in English:


An abbreviation consisting of initial letters pronounced separately (e.g. BBC). Compare with acronym.

Oxford Dictionaries

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    Right. That distinguishes those two senses, but there are other forms spread out along a spectrum: if the BBC is an initialism, what's the Beeb? What's Nine-One-One, versus Nine-Eleven, versus Seven-Eleven, versus Oh-Oh-Seven? (FYI: in the USA, Nine-One-One and Nine-Eleven refer to completely different things.) – John Lawler Aug 30 '15 at 17:20
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    @JohnLawler - That isn't part of the original question which clearly asks something different. Maybe you should start a new question. – chasly - supports Monica Aug 30 '15 at 17:24
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    The point is that, clear as that defnition is, it's not authoritative enough to be the standard sense, at least in any exact sense. Spelling and pronunciation going together as poorly as they do in English orthography, it would be surprising if there were any simple binary distinctions like Acronym and Initialism that actually divided the field among those two types, instead of simply getting applied to a few words here and there. It's easy to tell that it's confusing because we get questions like this. Which suggests people still don't distinguish it natively, if any ever did. – John Lawler Aug 30 '15 at 17:30
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    They also don't apply to many people's speech; the words are often used interchangeably by native speakers, and there are disagreements. Viz. the OQ. So, clear and precise as they are, they are just one set of rules among the various sets that various people apply, and believe to be the True, the Blushful Hippocrene. But there is no such ideal set of rules, any more than there is a single ideal blood pressure for everyone at every time, because language is alive, and full of exceptions and novel constructions. – John Lawler Aug 30 '15 at 17:37
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    YAWN is an acronym. Apparently it means 'Yet Another Waste of Net-space', according to this source acronyms.thefreedictionary.com/YAWN --- If it was pronounced Y.A.W.N. it would be an initialism. I think that is perfectly clear. – chasly - supports Monica Aug 30 '15 at 17:43

There is an official definition - the question is whether anyone outside lexicographers and EL&U users are aware of and use the difference ?

I work in a field so high tech that 50% of my conversations are acronyms and I wouldn't make the distinction outside this site.

Is there any circumstance outside a trivia quiz where it is necessary to point out that CPU is an initialism, DOS is an acronym and fsck is a tongue twister? So if almost everyone calls CIA an acronym, then isn't it an acronym?

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  • If you subscribe to the contemporary practice of descriptive linguistics yes but the traditional practice of prescriptive linguistics considers other factors, like clarity, original intent and word formation. The most important factor here for most people is probably going to be that we have nothing to gain from having a variety of names for the same concept (initials, initializations, initialisms and acronyms) and in fact, happen lose a useful distinction from failing to recognize the purpose for which the word acronym was specifically crafted: Indicating when words are formed from initials … – Tonepoet Aug 31 '15 at 0:25
  • "Is there any circumstance outside a trivia quiz where it is necessary to point out that CPU is an initialism, DOS is an acronym and fsck is a tongue twister" ... yes, in the linked question!! – Fattie Aug 31 '15 at 2:38
  • @Tonepoet Aside from the supposed distinction being entirely irrelevant, prescriptive linguistics would advocate that acronym follow its Grecian etymology and describe any abbreviation formed from the initial letter(s) of its constituent parts. – lly Apr 13 '17 at 17:39
  • @Ily -onym means word or name, so even by those rules, I see nothing wrong with acronym specifically describing words formed from the acros- or extreme edges. Also, English words do not always conform to the exact meanings of their etymons, esp. the greek recombination words. The -phillia suffix comes to mind. Anyway, if you want to discuss the matter further, I'd prefer if you contacted me in chat, since comments are not supposed to be for extended discussion, although I really can't think of much else more to say on the subject. – Tonepoet Apr 13 '17 at 18:18

according to:http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=acronym An abbreviation for a phrase created by taking the first letter or so of each word, AND is pronounced as a word itself. "USA" is technically NOT an acronym, because people don't pronounce it as "You-Sah". However, "MADD" (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) is an acronym because it's pronounced exactly as it's spelled.

So, it is depending on how you pronounce a word? as a acronym or not? Thats my thought.

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  • (As a curiosity, in some euro contries it is indeed pronounced "yousah" (usa) in those languages. An interesting one is LED lighting technology. As far as I know, in most English regions, if you say "ledd" (like the band), you sound like an idiot; but in I believe France and Germany, and also in Indian English, you say "ledd".) – Fattie Aug 31 '15 at 2:37
  • Urban Dictionary isn't actually a reliable source of information, though it can informally supplement other sources. – lly Apr 13 '17 at 17:37

An acronym is an abbreviation that can be read like a normal word, such as these:

  • WHO
  • AIDS

Whereas in an abbreviation, the letters are read independently, for example:

  • CA
  • BA
  • MA
  • B Sc
  • Ph.D.
  • M.L.A.
  • S.I.
  • I.P.S.
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  • Is GANESAN an acronym or initialism? – Jake Regier Aug 31 '15 at 4:02
  • This only address a small part of the question, and the least important part. – Matt E. Эллен Sep 1 '15 at 10:36

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