For some reason I started reading about acronyms on wikipedia,,, etc.  At first is seems like there’s not much to it – take the first letter of a bunch of words, put them together, and you have an acronym.  Oh, but there’s so much more.

FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, that’s an acronym, right?  Depends who you ask.  Since it’s pronounced “F-B-I” and not something like, “fibee” some say that’s not an acronym but instead an initialism.  An acronym is a word, such as NATO.

People in telecom always joke about the industry having too many TLAs, Three Letter Acronyms.  That makes a lot more sense to me now that I know the word acronym was created at Bell Labs in 1943.  Everything is AT&T is abbreviated. It’s to the point now where many acronyms have two or three meanings within the company.

Ever get annoyed when someone says “ATM Machine” or “PIN Number” because the last word is redundant? Apparently this is called RAS Syndrome or  “redundant acronym syndrome syndrome”.

Then there’s the Recursive Acronym. This is an acronym that refers to itself. With a couple of notable exceptions like Saab (Saab Automobile Aktiebolaget) these are almost always computer related. Programmers always think it’s clever. I think I first came across this with GNU (GNU’s Not Unix). PHP (PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor) is another example. These may also be called Macronyms.

Nested Acronyms call other acronyms. IBM POWER is a great example. It expands out to International Business Machines Performance Optimization With Enhanced RISC. But RISC is an acronym. So it expands one more time to International Business Machines Performance Optimization With Enhanced Reduced Instruction Set Computing.

If you’ve ever had to sit through any sort of meeting with HR people and watch a PowerPoint slideshow you’ve been exposed to the Backronym. This is a sort of contrived acronym made when someone takes a perfectly good word and decides each letter needs to stand for something. An example is Amber Alert (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response), which is really named after Amber Hagerman. You know that thing we call the Patriot Act? It’s really the USA PATRIOT Act, or Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

False acronyms are just what they sound like. Fuck doesn’t stand for  “for unlawful carnal knowledge”, “fornication under consent of the king”, or anything else for that matter.

And finally there’s the Orphan Initialism or Acronymization, sometimes called a kind of Pseudo-acronym. These are often seen when companies or organizations that are typically known by an acronym drop all the words and change their name to the acronym. At that point the letters no longer stand for anything. KFC isn’t Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s just KFC. 3M dropped Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, AARP dropped American Association of Retired Persons, and ESPN dropped Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. Even SAT, formerly Scholastic Assessment Test, formerly Scholastic Aptitude Test, doesn’t stand for anything nowadays.


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