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Is there a word for an acronym which spells out one of its component words?

What's that figure of speech in which you use the same word to define its meaning, thereby not really defining it.

Like, "YAML Ain't Markup Language", the expanded form of the abbreviation YAML uses itself in its definition and thus doesn't really define the actual thing.

In this case, though, through negation, it restricts the purview of its meaning to a fairly ascertainable concept. But that's just one example.

In other usages, the definition may or may not convey meaning.

Like in this definition of the Internet, "The Internet, a backward formation of inter-network, is a network of networks."

It's not synecdoche, as I used to think.

For instance a elusive statement like "God is...well, only God can define God." exemplifies it.

It uses the word whose definition is sought in the definition itself, thereby abdicating the responsibility of providing meaning or justification.

  • @WillHunting The scope in the OP is very broad indeed.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:55
  • I agree that this is not a real question. It is several questions with no focus.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 13:52
  • 2
    In general, the term for using a word to define its meaning is simply circular definition. But programmers are particularly fascinated by the concept of recursion, which is why we get acronyms like GNU is Not Unix. And people don't always know/care what the initials stand for, which is why we speak of RAM memory and PIN number. Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 16:23

5 Answers 5


I think the word you are looking for is recursive.

pertaining to or using a rule or procedure that can be applied repeatedly.

In your example YAML Ain't Markup Language YAML is a recursive acronym

Although God is...well, only God can define God. is more like circular reasoning, which I suppose could be seen as a basic form of recursion. Similar to this example:

Definition of religion

  • Oh nice. Thanks much. Yeah, sure, they are recursive. I was thinking of Lisp when typing up that question, honestly. As you suggest, circular reasoning does fit that statement I posted. Thanks very much for that. However, I think a recursive expression is what I was probably looking for and also ignoring for its familiarity. I was wrongly looking for an arcane expression. Thanks much.
    – Sathyaish
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:42
  • 1
    LOL! nice illustration.
    – Sathyaish
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:44
  • 2
    Did you mean: recursion? Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 16:09
  • @MattЭллен It was a joke. When you search for "recursion" Google says "Did you mean: recursion" Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 16:44
  • The sentence "Only God can define God" is recursive if you mean "Only the word 'God' can define the word 'God'" -- recursive and useless. But if you mean, "Only the being known as God can provide an adequate definition of what he himself is", then the sentence is completely meaningful. If God does not provide you with such a definition, then you are still out of luck, but the sentence explains why. Sometimes the only correct answer to a question is, "We do not presently have the means to determine the answer." (i.e. While I don't agree with the original sentence, it is coherent.)
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 17:44

Autological word.
A word is autological or homological if it describes itself.

The common term for this is a backronym, a back-formation acronym. Also known as recursive acronym/ metacronym/ recursive initialism, this is a fun way to coin names for new programming languages and such.

RPM, PHP and YAML were originally conventional initialisms which were later redefined recursively.
GNU — GNU's Not Unix
KDE — KDE Desktop Environment
PHP — PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor
PINE — PINE Is Nearly Elm, originally; PINE now officially stands for "Pine Internet News and E-mail"
RPM — RPM Package Manager (originally "Red Hat Package Manager")
SPARQL — SPARQL Protocol And RDF Query Language
Wine — Wine Is Not an Emulator
YAML — YAML Ain't Markup Language (initially "Yet Another Markup Language")

and of course,
VISA - VISA International Service Association

  • Close! Very close. And thanks much much for that. However, I have to say that it is narrower in scope than the usage I described. For example, this statement: "Only God can explain what God is." is not autological. It is evasive of its responsibility to provide meaning. But darn close, and darn useful reply. Sorry, I can only vote you up after I have crossed the minimum reputation limit. My current reputation is just 1 point. Will vote your answer up as soon as I am eligible.
    – Sathyaish
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:33
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    A backronym doesn't have to be recursive. The definition is an acronym whose expansion is coined after the acronym is created. E.g. the name PHP originally came from Personal Home Page, but is now a backronym of PHP Hypertext Preprocessor (this is also recursive, but that's coincidence) Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:48
  • Sorry you both guys, Matt and Kris, you both provided very helpful answers and invested effort in helping me. I'll be able to upvote you once I have at least 15 points of reputation. Currently a disreputable. Heheh! :-)
    – Sathyaish
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:52
  • Backronym is the more popularly used and understood (incorrectly, in some cases) of the many precise terms. Which is why I did not use it as the lone definitive answer. The OP is broad in its scope.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:53
  • @Sathyaish In the final analysis, an answer that proves useful to you would be worth many up votes.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:58

No-one has mentioned tautology yet. That's when your "proof" relies on the assumption that what you're trying to prove is true. The Napkin picture above is totally a tautology. Someone who told an unfunny joke, but declared it to be funny because "I have a great sense of humour and I found it funny" then when pressed, proved their great sense of humour with reference to the just-told "very funny" joke, would be engaging in a tautology.

It's also used when extra words are included that add no meaning (free gift - are there gifts that are not free?) or mean the same things in different languages (The La Brea Tar Pits, With Au Jus Sauce) So having one of the words in an acronym be the acronym itself (most famously Gnu's Not Unix but there are many more) might also fit.

Above all, it's a pun and a little bit self-referential - software names like yacc (Yet Another Compiler Compiler), C++ (incrementing C, which itself was named because it came after B), and Apache (it's a patchy server) have a long tradition of wordplay. It can be hard to name the concept being used when it's being used playfully, but I would still argue for tautology in the case of YAML.

  • I think your examples are more "circular reasoning" than "tautology". My understanding of "tautology" is that it means a statement that is inevitably true or true by definition, like "A woman is female" or "He will do what he will do."
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 17:48
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    Suggest you see more examples of tautology to be clearer about what it really stands for.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 5:00
  • @Kris - me, or Jay? Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 13:56
  • Kate Gregory, the suggestion was for you!
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 15:28

The everyday word for this concept, where a word is defined using the same word either immediately or via other definitions, is:

circular definition.

The slightly more technical sounding term 'recursive definition' also works (but would not be understood as well by most people). As an aside 'recursive' has a much more technical definition which primarily is about using other definitions, but it is not necessarily about circularity (though it often is used in that context).

  • Use of a word in its own definition need not be circular if the word has multiple meanings, and the definition of one refers to another. Such usage is extremely common in dictionaries, since it saves a lot of repetition.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 19:06

In linguistic terms, the example you pose is one of being self-referential.

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