How Acronyms Come to Be

Here’s a sampling from around the world, as used in the English, German, Russian and Hebrew languages
WANT TO SAVE time and space? Try using acronyms and initialisms.

Take the following two sentences: (1) By taking AZT, the HIV patient forestalled getting AIDS, and no DNA changes occurred; (2) In her many years of working in the ER and ICU, Ann had seen virtually every disease including COPD, SARS, SIDS and ALS, and understood why many patients had DNR instructions, but she was less sympathetic to the man who came to the crowded ER claiming to have ADHD, and she thought he was a GOMER.

In the first sentence, having to employ the words “azido thymidine,” “human immuno-deficiency virus,” “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” and “deoxyribonucleic acid” would have resulted in a sentence more than twice as long. 

The second sentence uses acronyms to shorten the following: “emergency room,” “intensive care unit,” “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” “severe acute respiratory syndrome,” “sudden infant death syndrome,” “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” “do not resuscitate” and “get out of my emergency room,” and thus decreases the sentence’s characters by almost 60 per cent. An initialism differs from an acronym in that it isn’t pronounced as a word, such as is the case of USA (United States of America), whereas an acronym such as POTUS (President of the United States) is pronounced as a word.

Surprisingly, there is a dearth of well-known acronyms in the field of law. The only four that come to mind are SCOTUS, for Supreme Court of the United States; JAG, for Judge Advocacy General; RICO, for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization; and SLAPP, for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, which was related to me by a Facebook contact.

The word “acronym” is of relatively young vintage. It marries the prefix acr-, “outer end, tip” (from the Greek akros) with the suffix -onym, found in words such as homonym and synonym. The first OED citation of the word, in 1940, informs us that it comes from the German Akronym. This German provenance is demonstrated by the term Gestapo, an acronym of Geheme Staatspolizei (Secret State Police) that was first used in 1933, and the terms Schupo, short for Schutzpolizei (uniformed police) and Kripo, a shortening of Kriminapolizei (criminal investigation department), both used by Nazis in the 1930s.

Russian also had some administrative acronyms that were first employed in the 1920s and 1930s, including Komsomol, an acronym of Kommunisticheski Soyuz Molodahi (organization of Communist youth), and Narkomprod, which shortened Narody Commisariat Prodovolsviya (People’s Commisariat of the Soviet Union), which was responsible for food distribution and industrial goods.

One of the earliest English acronyms, snafu (1941), was popularized by profane Second World War American soldiers. It refers to a chaotic situation and stands for situation normal, all fucked (or fouled) up. This type of word-shortening existed before the coining of the word acronym, but only to a limited extent. Examples here are the military term AWOL (1894), for absent without leave, a punishable offence, and Anzac (1915), used to refer to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. 

There is little evidence, however, that English words were often created in this fashion before the 20th century. John Ayto, in 20th Century Words, speculates that “the proliferation of polynomial governmental agencies, international organizations, and military units as the century has progressed (the last particularly during World War II) has contributed significantly to its growth.” Also, many words from technological fields are acronyms, such as radar (radio detection and ranging), sonar (sound navigation and ranging), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), and laser (light amplified stimulated electronic radiation).

On a recent trip to Israel I was struck by the ubiquitous use of acronyms, both in print and in vernacular usage. They are formed by using the initial letters and adding inverted commas, or apostrophes, between the last two letters to show that it’s an acronym rather than an ordinary word. Often (and especially when they describe a noun), Hebrew acronyms are pronounced by the insertion of a vowel sound: usually an “a” between the letters. As one would expect, there are many government-related acronyms such as Tzahal, which is shorthand for Tzavah Hahaganah Le Yisrael (Israel Defense Forces), and Shabak, which truncates Sherut HaBitahon HaKlali (Israel Security Agency).

Hebrew's proclivity for acronyms may in part be due to its alphabet originally comprising only consonants, so that writers were used to inserting vowel points within strings of letters to form pronounceable words. Out of an ancient language was born one of the modern practices of rendering terms in shorthand. 

Howard Richler’s latest book, Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit, is published by Ronsdale Press.