Acronyms vs. Abbreviations

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Feb 19 15:19:57 UTC 2006

At 8:27 AM -0500 2/19/06, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:
>>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
>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?]).

Easy case first:  I don't think I've ever seen "auto" called an
acronym; for me, that's a clipping (or truncation), as are "burb",
"blog", etc.  As Doug says, all of these fall under the general
"abbreviation" umbrella, but the species differ.  "&" and "$", and
"=" and other mathematical symbols, are orthographic abbreviations,
but also sometimes just called symbols.  "bldg", "blvd", "bbl" are
also orthographic abbreviations, but not symbols.

I agree on the broad/narrow distinction within the acronym class, but
I use "initialism" for the ones falling within the former but outside
the latter category.  I find it to be an unambiguous and fairly
transparent term.  On that use, "initialism" are broad category but
not narrow category acronyms, making "acronym" an autohyponym.

And I'm not sure what to call "Fannie/Sallie Mae" and their sisters
and cousins.

(As to which broad category acronyms are (or become) narrow category
ones and which ones remain initialisms, that's something we've
discussed--somewhat inconclusively, as I recall--on the list.)


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