Acronyms vs. Abbreviations

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun Feb 19 13:27:01 UTC 2006

>Can anyone explain the _real_ difference (if there is one) between
>acronyms and abbreviations.  The _Introduction to Language_ text by
>Fromkin and Rodman defines acronyms as "words derived from the initials of
>several words," with examples such as NASA and UNICEF.
>   However, they also say that "when the string of letters cannot be
> easily prononced as a word, the acronym is produced by sounding out each
> letter," with examples such as NFL and UCLA.  I always thought that if
> they could not be pronounced as words, they were just abbreviations, not
> acronyms. In other words, my thinking is, all acronyms are abbreviations,
> but not all abbreviations are acronyms.  In _The American Heritage
> Dictionary_, 'USMC' , for example, is listed as the *abbreviation* (not
> acronym) for United States Marine Corps. Should/can the two be used
> interchangeably?

I think "abbreviation" can be applied to any shortened form (including
non-acronyms such as "burb" < "suburb", "bldg." < "building", "bbl." <

"Acronym" [broad sense] is something made from initial parts of a series of
terms, however pronounced (e.g., "NASA", "USMC", "hi-fi", "radar", "ATM").

"Acronym" [narrow sense] is something made from initial parts of a series
of terms, pronounced as if an ordinary word (so "USMC" or "ATM" would not

A group of initial letters (however pronounced) can be called an
"initialism", I think (e.g., "NASA", "USMC", but not "hi-fi").

There are plenty of borderline or debatable cases, I think (e.g., "M." =
"Monsieur" [acronym? initialism?], "FNMA" = "Fannie Mae" = "Federal
National Mortgage Association" [acronym (narrow sense)?], "etc.", "&", "$",
"auto" = "automobile" [acronym?]).

Them's just my notions.

-- Doug Wilson

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