The Grammarphobia Blog


Q: From the “Makes Me Wanna Holler” file . . . the rampant misuse of the word “acronym” for “abbreviation.” The latest example? The official report about the collapse of 7 World Trade Center on 9/11 has a list of “acronyms and abbreviations” in which most of the former belong with the latter. Should we launch a campaign, have bumper stickers printed?

A: I like the subject line of your email. In fact, I like it so much that I’m borrowing it for the title of this blog item about the misuse of the word “acronym.”

Now, on to the subject at hand. Bumper stickers wouldn’t hurt, but I’m not sure they would do much good either. More and more people are using the word “acronym” loosely to refer to abbreviations.

Is this legit? Not exactly. An acronym is a kind of abbreviation, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an acronym as a word formed from the initial letters of other words.

Examples: “radar” (“radio detection and ranging”), “laser” (“light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation”), “NATO” (“North Atlantic Treaty Organization”).

The key word in that definition is “word.” An acronym is an actual spoken word, while an abbreviation like “FBI,” “LA,” or “Fla.” is a shortened form of a word or phrase.

The American-Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.) have definitions similar to the one in the OED.

But here’s breaking news (at least for me): The latest edition of Merriam-Webster’s (the 11th) has added this meaning: “an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters.”

Although M-W notes that this new sense of “acronym” is less important than the more established one, I wouldn’t be surprised if it grows in importance in future editions of the dictionary.

The term “acronym,” formed from Greek words for tip and name, is relatively new. The first published reference in the OED is from a 1943 issue of the journal American Notes and Queries: “Words made up of initial letters or syllables of other words … called by the name acronym.”

I’d hate to lose this original meaning of the word. It’s clear, precise, and says something that no other word does. English is a democracy, however, and the majority rules. I have only one vote, but I cast it for calling an acronym an acronym.

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