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

  • 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. Commented Jul 10, 2011 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
    Commented Jul 10, 2011 at 1:53
  • A.W.O.L. dates from 1894, according to OED.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 1:05

4 Answers 4


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.


  • 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 ».

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
    Commented Nov 22, 2011 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. Commented Nov 23, 2011 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. Commented Nov 23, 2011 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
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 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
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 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
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 10:43
  • Telegraphic abbreviations were not widely adopted into the general language, though. POTUS and SCOTUS pronounced as words may have long been inside-the-beltway jargon, but outside of movies and TV shows with that setting. I never heard them until very late in the 20th century.
    – Mark Reed
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 16:49

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.

  • 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.... Commented Nov 23, 2011 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
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 13:27
  • Recognized sets of initials are often called "initialisms", which is either to distinguish them from acronyms or a superset of which acronyms form the word-pronounced subset. The use of initialisms along with other types of abbreviations is obviously quite old, due to limited space. But coining new words by acronym construction seems very much a 20th-century practice.
    – Mark Reed
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 16:47

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. Commented Jul 10, 2011 at 2:02
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    If an acronym must be a pronounceable word, how do you pronounce SPQR? Spuhkwer?
    – Hugo
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 10:10
  • Acronym is a hypernym of initialism; acronym was coined in the 40's, initialism in the 60's. Abbreviation is a hypernym of both and has been around as a word much longer. The main distinction of an acronym and initialism is that they compress multiple words, where an abbreviation can be just one word. Pronunciation is secondary. An interesting question (not for the English.SE site, but maybe another?) would be if we have any scholarship on how Latin initialisms were spoken.
    – Patrick M
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 15:10
  • @Hugo Acronyms include initialisms, always and primarily, and it's incorrect to pretend they don't.
    – lly
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 14:20
  • Not always, see the other definition.
    – Hugo
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 14:59

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