Acronyms vs. Abbreviations

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Feb 19 15:27:25 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").

P.S. In case it wasn't clear, I was proposing that "initialism" be
restricted so that (narrow sense) acronyms like "NATO" and "NASA" are
*not* initialisms; otherwise my taxonomy is quite similar to Doug's.
Another category we didn't discuss though is that instantiated by
"Comintern" or "Gestapo" or (more innocently, except to the
waistline) "Nabisco".  Nominees?


The American Dialect Society -

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