It’s An Acronymical Matter

Sometimes acronyms are exactly that, things we say that we know are helping us to abbreviate phrases or names and to speed up our communication and make it more efficient. Over time, many of these acronyms embed themselves into our language, and soon they become words all unto their own with their original meaning lost.

During a recent conversation with a friend, it became apparent they didn’t realise ASAP wasn’t a word and they had no idea the letters spelled out it’s meaning. As Soon As Possible, in case anyone else is in a similar position.

But while many are obvious, or perhaps at least thought to be obvious, others have either become so entrenched in language they are now nouns themselves and no longer considered acronyms. Or for many others, we simply didn’t know they were acronyms in the first place.


SOund Navigation And Ranging
Sonar is a device that emits ultrasonic waves, usually underwater, and measures the reflected echo. This tells the device the wave has hit an object and has been bounced back. The device can work out the distance to the object, it’s density, distribution and movement.


RAdio Detection And Ranging
Much like Sonar, Radar emits waves and records the echo received back. Radar uses radio waves, which work better through the air and the receiver can interpret the echo to work out the distance to the object, it’s density and movement.


Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. Developed in the 1960s, ther are used in a variety of devices and put to a variety of uses. From hard drives and DVD players, and good things like eye surgery and bad things like weapons. Sorry Mr Bond, it looks like Goldfinger is expecting you to die.


Thomas A Swift Electric Rifle
The acronym for Taser has an interesting story behind, the inventor naming the device after a popular childrens book. Of course, the Taser is considered a non-lethal version of a rifle, or gun, although I doubt few people would still like to be on the receiving end of one.


Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
Which pretty much explains it. A device (or series of devices) that enable breathing underwater. Developed in the twentieth century, the term SCUBA was part of a patent submitted in 1952. The use of thses systems enabled the diver to be free from the surface completely, the pressurised tank meaning a feed from the surface was no longer required.

Care Package

Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe/Everywhere
It sounds like it shouldn’t be an acronym, because care package is axactly what it is. But CARE was an organisation that sent parcels of food or other welcomed items to troops in Europe during the world wars. Post-war, the organisation expanded and Europe was amended to Everywhere.


Special Processed American Meat/SPiced HAM
Originally a processed meat product that famously came in a tin, the actual definition is only known by a very few select individuals. Of course, osince a famous sketch by Monty Python featuring the product being persistently pushed on patrons of a cafe, it has become known an the unsolicited electronic mail that fills our inboxes.


Graphics Interchange Format
Developed by Steve Wilhite and released in 1987, GIF is an image format that has become synonymous with homourous animated memes on the Internet. It’s developer famously exclaimed recently that we have all been prouncing it incorrectly all these years, and stated it should be with a soft-g, as in jif.


Completely Automated Public Turing Test to tell Computers and Humans Apart
Oh yes, those annoying ways in which computers get us to prove we aren’t robots. Click on all the traffic lights, type out this scrawled and camoflauged letters. The Turing Test was created by Alan Turing, a British mathematician and computer scientist in the early twentieth century, as a way of testing the abilities of a computer. If a computer can show enough intelligent behaviour that a human cannot tell machine from human, it is said to have passed the Turing Test.


Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome
Aids is a disease that comes from an HIV infection that until very recently, almost certainly meant an early death. Advances in medicine and scientific breakthroughs have progressed tremendously in recent years and are allowing those infected to lead relatively normal and full lives.


Special Weapons And Tactics
Specialised officers who are trained to use weapons. And weapons that are considerably more powerful than a fly swatter. They are usually a special team adjoined to a police force and are common in United States of America.


Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid
The Swedish pop group from the ’70s, who very recently have made a comeback. Although I’m not entirely certain if the order of the names is specific or if they can be changed around.


Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd
This is one I did not know was an acronym. Ikea was founded by Ingvar Kamprad, and Elmtaryd is the farm where he was born and Agunnaryd is the nearby town.


Yet Another Hierarchically Organised Oracle
Yahoo!, founded by Jerry Yang and David Filo in the mid-90s, eventually named their index of the World Wide Web due to the database being multi-layered subcategories (a hierarchy) and oracle being a sort of all-knowing source of truth. Sometimes the word organised is substituted for officious.


Personal Identification Number
Developed alongside the first cash machine, or ATM, the PIN allowed a secure way of matching the user to the cheque that was deposited. About five years later, a rival bank developed the bank card with a magnetic strip on the back for encoding information.

An interesting way of figuring out which have become nouns is simply by looking at spell-check or noticing how many are automatically formatted to capitals by auto-correct. Laser, Taser and Scuba are not adjusted and completely accepted by my device. As is Abba and Ikea. But for Aids it is trying to force the letters into uppercase.

And I thought I’d include PIN just because we don’t tend to say P-I-N, but instead the word pin, and interestingly we often say “PIN number”, essentially doubling the times we are communicating the word number. Also of note, when I type “pin number” it does correct pin to PIN.

Initialisms, by the way, can follow a similar path through language. An initialism is similar to an acronym, but the letters do not spell a typically communicative word.

Laser – or layzer – is perfectly pronounceable in English. FBI is not. However, some of these initialisms have also become so common in everyday language the fact the letters stand for individual words is becoming eroded. The Federal Bureau of Investigation isn’t necessarily known to all, but say the three letters and most will understand which organisation you are talking about.

Having a conversation about the British Broadcasting Corporation may draw a quizzical look, but when you say “Top Gear is on the BBC tonight”, everyone knows what you are conveying. And which group of channels to turn to.

Further Reading

The Case Of The Coated Chocolate Apostrophe