Are Acronyms Words?

Are acronyms words?
As you know, acronyms are letters or phrases that we often use in the same way as we use words. For example, NATO and NASA are acronyms. You just read each as they stand. Sometimes, acronyms don’t sound quite right when you read then as words. For example, in a sentence about the FDA, you pronounce each letter of FDA as you would when saying the alphabet, instead of phonetically.

It’s important to remember each letter of an acronym represents a word, so acronyms aren’t the same as abbreviations. For instance, we might abbreviate “street” as “St.” or “avenue” as “Ave.” The letters don’t stand for distinct words as they do with acronyms.

Then there are acronyms that are composed of syllables, just to make things a bit more confusing. An example of such an acronym would be “Benelux.” It stands for three countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and each country gets two letters in the acronym rather than just one.

So, Are Acronyms Words?

Linguists seem to agree that acronyms really are words. The linguistic phenomenon they represent is known as “blending,” and although the use of acronyms was once a lot rarer than it is today, we can quite safely say that acronyms are words, even if they don’t appear in any dictionary.

Some acronyms are so well-used that instead of asking if these acronyms are words, we use them as such without ever realizing they are acronyms. If anyone ever argues with you when you assert that acronyms are words, you can use these examples to catch them off guard.

Base jumping: Have you ever wondered why jumping from high places is called ‘base’ jumping? In this case, “base” stands for the kinds of things you can jump off if you’re really crazy: Building, Aerial, Span or Earth.

Captcha: Have you ever wondered why the letters and numbers we type in to show we’re human are called “captchas?” Time for the next bit of trivia! It stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.”

Care packages: Most people think a care package is sent to show that someone cares, and this acronym was probably deliberately developed so that people would make that association. In fact, it stands for “Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere.”

Gestapo: Well, it’s German, so people can be pardoned for not realizing it’s an abbreviation for “Geheime Staatspolizei,” but now you do!

Radar and Sonar: Surprised? So was I! They stand for “Radio Detection and Ranging” and “Sound Navigation and Ranging” respectively. If anyone should argue that an acronym can’t be a word, these two words will provide the clinchers to the ensuing argument.

Scuba: Now that we’re getting into the swing of things, you may like to hazard a guess, but it’s unlikely you’ll guess “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.” Diving would be way less sexy-sounding as a sport if people had to say the whole thing, “I’m just going Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus diving this weekend.”

Laser When you read “laser” in an article, there’s a pretty good chance the true meaning of this acronym (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) doesn’t instantly pop into your mind. This is another example of how we use acronyms as words without even realizing it.

Zip Codes: You guessed it. “Zip” is an acronym. It stands for Zone Improvement Plan. While you may debate whether or not the plan actually worked to improve the zones, there’s no denying that this acronym is often used without people knowing that it is one.

For the purpose of counting words when writing an essay, article or book, word counters will treat acronyms as a single word rather than as all the words within their meaning. This can be frustrating when you’re trying to reach a certain word count, but a benefit when you’re attempting to reduce word count.

What if all these examples aren’t sufficient to convince the person you’re debating with that an acronym is really a word? While we never would encourage you to actually use physical force, you may become frustrated enough to consider using Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle on them. What’s that? A taser of course!

(Photo courtesy of Mat Hampson)

  • This actually ended up being more interesting that I thought it was going to be when I arrived here. I guess we take for granted that a word is a word even when it is formed from an acronym. I feel like I got a little smarter today which is always a good thing.

  • I totally disagree with this! Acronyms are letters that represent words, not words in themselves. Just because we understand what these letters represent when they’re said without pronouncing each word doesn’t make the acronym a word. Saying that they are is just plain wrong!

    • So you don’t think that the words mentioned above like “scuba” and “taser” are real words even though you can find them in the dictionary? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

  • I think it’s appropriate to consider some acronyms is words and others is not. I think that if you say the acronym as you would pronounce a single word, then it should be considered a word. But if you say the acronym by saying each of the individual letters within the acronym, then it’s not a word. So whether you consider one to be a word or not should depend on how you pronounce it.

    • I like this explanation of one an acronym is a word and when it isn’t. I wouldn’t consider the NRA ( National Rifle Association) to be a word because you say each individual letter when pronouncing it. Each of those letters represents a word unto itself. On the other hand, I would consider NASA to be a word because we say it is a word. I’m just repeating what you have said, but I think that makes a lot of sense.

    • The way I understand it, it’s only an acronym if you can pronounce it as a word. So NASCAR = acronym but FDA is not an acronym.

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