Pronunciation and orthographyThe pronunciation of letter acronyms has encouraged two tendencies in abbreviation: to omit points (NATO rather than N.A.T.O.); to use lower-case letters (radar rather than RADAR). As a result, an acronym may become so fully a word that its letter-based origin ceases to signify or be remembered, as with radar. Occasionally, contrasts occur, such as lower-case radar and upper-case RADAR (Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation). There are variations, inconsistencies, and idiosyncratic practices in the presentation of letter acronyms: the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization is conservatively contracted to U.N.E.S.C.O., but commonly contracted to UNESCO and sometimes Unesco. In the house styles of some publications, common acronyms are presented as if they were proper nouns: ‘When the Vice-President explicitly links European concessions on Gatt [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] to the continuance of Nato, he bangs a crude drum’ (editorial, Guardian, 11 Feb. 1992). Syllabic and hybrid acronyms do not have points (Asda, sitcom), may be lower-case, upper-case, or mixed, and sometimes have internal capitals: for example, HoJo, short for the US hotel-and-restaurant group Howard Johnson.
The effects of pronounceabilityBecause acronyms are pronounceable and easy to create, they make convenient shorthand labels, mnemonic aids, and activist slogans. A typical shorthand acronym is Disney's EPCOT or Epcot: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (in Florida). Mnemonic acronyms are often homonyms of existing words that help fix events and ideas in people's minds: SALT, which is not connected with sodium chloride and means ‘Strategic Arms Limitation Talks’; SQUID, which has nothing to do with the sea and means ‘superconducting quantum interference device’. Slogan acronyms are parasitic on existing words, coined to label a cause and send a message at the same time: ASH for ‘Action on Smoking and Health’; DUMP for ‘Disposal of Unused Medicines and Pills’; NOW for ‘National Organization of Women’. Mnemonic and slogan acronyms are particularly subject to word-play, especially in headlines: Can START be stopped? refers to Strategic Arms Reduction Talks; A ConCERNed Pope refers to the Vatican's interest in radiation and in CERN, the Centre européen pour la recherche nucléaire.
Syllabic acronymsSyllabic acronyms, currently fashionable in many languages, are related to word blends such as brunch and electrocute. Some two-syllable and three-syllable forms are: Amoco American Oil Company; Asda Associated Dairies; Con Ed Consolidated Edison; Fedeco Federal Electoral Commission (Nigeria); HoJo Howard Johnson [Motor Lodges] (US); op-ed opposite the editorial page (journalese); sitcom situation comedy (television drama). The factors that have encouraged their spread include computer usage, telex addresses, the naming of scientific and technical devices and activities, and the often flamboyant labelling of commercial products.
CreativityAcronyms are numerous and more are constantly being coined. As a result, they are often gathered, with other abbreviations, in such collections as Elsevier's Foreign-Language Teacher's Dictionary of Acronyms and Abbreviations ( Udo O. H. Jung, 1985), which contains more than 3,500 items like Flint (Foreign Language Instructional Technology) and Team (Teachers of English Arabic Monthly). Although many acronyms are soberly functional, others have a touch of whimsy about them, such as BOMFOG (Brotherhood of Man, Fatherhood of God), a term used by US journalists for pious and platitudinous speeches, evidently an abbreviation of phrases with which Nelson Rockefeller like to end his speeches. The informal BrE term bumf (unnecessary papers and paperwork) is comparable; it derives from public-school and Armed Forces slang for toilet paper, which in turn descends from bum fodder, a 17c expression for trashy printed matter. See Q, -ONYM, SYLLABLE WORD.
A SPECTRUM OF ACRONYMSThere is no sharp dividing line between initialisms and acronyms, and among acronyms the dividing line is not sharp between the pronounceable but meaningless and forms that have been chosen because they give ‘added value’. The five stages below represent the continuum from initialisms to slogan acronyms.
Amateur Athletic Association
Graduate of the Royal
School of Music
British Broadcasting Corporation (informal usage, omitting the C)
Cambridge College of Arts and Technology
Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow
Roll-on, roll-off (ferries)
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks
Superconducting quantum interference device
Aboriginal Lands of Hawaiian Ancestry
National Organization of Women
ac·ro·nym / ˈakrəˌnim/ • n. a word formed from the initial letters of other words (e.g., radar, laser).