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An acronym is an abbreviation formed from the initial components in a phrase or a word. These components may be individual letters (as in CEO) or parts of words (as in Benelux and Ameslan). There is no universal agreement on the precise definition of various names for such abbreviations (see nomenclature) nor on written usage (see orthographic styling). In English and most other languages, such abbreviations historically had limited use, but their coinage and use became much more common in the 20th century. Acronyms are a type of word formation process, and they are viewed as a subtype of blending.
The term acronym is the name for a word from the first letters of each word in a series of words (such as sonar, created from sound navigation and ranging). Attestations for "Akronym" in German are known from 1921, and for "acronym" in English from 1940. While the word abbreviation refers to any shortened form of a word or a phrase, some have used initialism or alphabetism to refer to an abbreviation formed simply from, and used simply as, a string of initials.
Although the term acronym is widely used to describe any abbreviation formed from initial letters, some dictionaries define acronym to mean "a word" in its original sense, while some others include additional senses attributing to acronym the same meaning as that of initialism. The distinction, when made, hinges on whether the abbreviation is pronounced as a word, or as a string of letters. In such cases, examples found in dictionaries include NATO (//), scuba (//), and radar (//) for acronyms, and FBI (//) and HTML (//) for initialism. In the rest of this Wikipedia article, this distinction is not made.
There is also some disagreement as to what to call abbreviations that some speakers pronounce as letters and others pronounce as a word. For example, the terms URL and IRA can be pronounced as individual letters: // and //, respectively; or as a single word: // and //, respectively. Such constructions, however—regardless of how they are pronounced—if formed from initials, may be identified as initialisms without controversy.
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The spelled-out form of an acronym or initialism (that is, what it stands for) is called its expansion.
Comparing a few examples of each type
- Pronounced as a word, containing only initial letters
- Pronounced as a word, containing non-initial letters
- Pronounced as a word, containing a mixture of initial and non-initial letters
- Pronounced as a word or spelled out, depending on speaker or context
- FAQ: ([fæk] or ef-a-cue) frequently asked question
- IRA: When used for Individual Retirement Account, can be pronounced as letters (i-ar-a) or as a word [ˈaɪrə].
- SAT(s): ([sæt] or ess-a-tee) (previously) Scholastic Achievement (or Aptitude) Test(s)(US) or Standard Assessment Test(s) (UK), now claimed not to stand for anything.
- SQL: ([siːkwəl] or ess-cue-el) Structured Query Language.
- Pronounced as a combination of spelling out and a word
- Spelled out only
- Spelled out, but with a shortcut
- IEEE: (I triple E) Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
- NAACP: (N double A C P) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
- NCAA: (N C double A or N C two A or N C A A) National Collegiate Athletic Association
- Shortcut incorporated into name
- 3M: (three M) originally Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company
- E3: (E three) Electronic Entertainment Exposition
- W3C: (W three C) World Wide Web Consortium
- C4ISTAR: (C four I star) Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance
- Multi-layered acronyms
- NAC Breda: (Dutch football club) NOAD ADVENDO Combinatie ("NOAD ADVENDO Combination"), formed by the 1912 merger of two clubs, NOAD (Nooit Opgeven Altijd Doorgaan "Never give up, always persevere") and ADVENDO (Aangenaam Door Vermaak En Nuttig Door Ontspanning "Pleasant by entertainment and useful by relaxation") from Breda
- GAIM: GTK+ AOL Instant Messenger
- GIMP: GNU Image Manipulation Program
- VHDL: VHSIC hardware description language, where VHSIC stands for very-high-speed integrated circuit.
- Recursive acronyms, in which the abbreviation refers to itself
- GNU: GNU's not Unix!
- WINE: WINE Is Not an Emulator (originally, WINdows Emulator)
- PHP: PHP hypertext pre-processor (formerly personal home page)
- These may go through multiple layers before the self-reference is found:
- HURD: HIRD of Unix-replacing daemons, where "HIRD" stands for "HURD of interfaces representing depth"
- Pseudo-acronyms, which consist of a sequence of characters that, when pronounced as intended, invoke other, longer words with less typing (see also Internet slang)
- Acronyms whose last abbreviated word is often redundantly included anyway
Historical and current use
Acronymy, like retronymy, is a linguistic process that has existed throughout history but for which there was little to no naming, conscious attention, or systematic analysis until relatively recent times. Like retronymy, it became much more common in the 20th century than it had formerly been.
Acronyms are used most often to abbreviate names of organizations and long or frequently referenced terms. The armed forces and government agencies frequently employ acronyms; some well-known examples from the United States are among the "alphabet agencies" (also jokingly referred to as "alphabet soup") created by Franklin D. Roosevelt under the New Deal. Business and industry also are prolific coiners of acronyms. The rapid advance of science and technology in recent centuries seems to be an underlying force driving the usage, as new inventions and concepts with multiword names create a demand for shorter, more manageable names. One representative example, from the U.S. Navy, is COMCRUDESPAC, which stands for commander, cruisers destroyers Pacific; it's also seen as "ComCruDesPac". "YABA-compatible" (where YABA stands for "yet another bloody acronym") is used to mean that a term's acronym can be pronounced but is not an offensive word (e.g., "When choosing a new name, be sure it is "YABA-compatible").
The use of acronyms has been further popularized with the emergence of Short Message Systems (SMS). To fit messages into the 160-character limit of SMS, acronyms such as "GF" (girl friend), "LOL" (laughing out loud), and "DL" (download or down low) have been popularized into the mainstream. Although prescriptivist disdain for such neologism is fashionable, and can be useful when the goal is protecting message receivers from crypticness, it is scientifically groundless when couched as preserving the "purity" or "legitimacy" of language; this neologism is merely the latest instance of a perennial linguistic principle—the same one that in the 19th century prompted the aforementioned abbreviation of corporation names in places where space for writing was limited (e.g., ticker tape, newspaper column inches).
Aids to learning the expansion without leaving a document
The expansion is typically given at the first occurrence of the acronym within a given text, for the benefit of those readers who do not know what it stands for. The capitalization of the original term is independent of it being acronymized, being lowercase for a term such as frequently asked questions (FAQ) but uppercase for a proper name such as the United Nations (UN).
In addition to expansion at first use, some publications also have a key listing all acronyms used therein and what their expansions are. This is a convenience to readers for two reasons. The first is that if they are not reading the entire publication sequentially (which is a common mode of reading), then they may encounter an acronym without having seen its expansion. Having a key at the start or end of the publication obviates skimming over the text searching for an earlier use to find the expansion. (This is especially important in the print medium, where no search utility is available.) The second reason for the key feature is its pedagogical value in educational works such as textbooks. It gives students a way to review the meanings of the acronyms introduced in a chapter after they have done the line-by-line reading, and also a way to quiz themselves on the meanings (by covering up the expansion column and recalling the expansions from memory, then checking their answers by uncovering.) In addition, this feature enables readers possessing knowledge of the abbreviations to not have to encounter expansions (redundant to such readers).
Expansion at first use and the abbreviation-key feature are aids to the reader that originated in the print era, and they are equally useful in print and online. In addition, the online medium offers yet more aids, such as tooltips, hyperlinks, and rapid search via search engine technology.
Acronyms often occur in jargon. An acronym may have different meanings in different areas of industry, writing, and scholarship. The general reason for this is convenience and succinctness for specialists, although it has led some to obfuscate the meaning either intentionally, to deter those without such domain-specific knowledge, or unintentionally, by creating an acronym that already existed.
The medical literature has been struggling to control the proliferation of acronyms as their use has evolved from aiding communication to hindering it. This has become such a problem that it is even evaluated at the level of medical academies such as the American Academy of Dermatology. 
Acronyms are often taught as mnemonic devices, for example in physics the colors of the visible spectrum are ROY G. BIV (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet). They are also used as mental checklists, for example in aviation: GUMPS, which is Gas-Undercarriage-Mixture-Propeller-Seatbelts. Other examples of mnemonic acronyms include CAN SLIM, and PAVPANIC.
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