The acronym POTUS (President of the United States) also began as a telegraphic code around 1895. FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) didn’t appear until the 1980s, where it may have originated as the Secret Service’s code name for Nancy Reagan.
Acronyms and initialisms have been part of our language for a very long time, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that our need for more contractions began percolating. During the 20th century, they moved into the parlance of our everyday lives. Today, like telegraphers of old, we deftly tap out abbreviated messages, relaying them to recipients near and far with a device we carry in our pockets. Consider this example:
GR8 ASAP THX IDK AZ ACCT PIN POTUS on FOX @IHOP in SF SMH USA FUBAR 2M2H ARR LAX @8AM 2MORO TTYL I❤︎U
Great! As soon as possible. Thanks. I don’t know the personal identification code for the Arizona account. The President of the United States is on Fox News at the International House of Pancakes in San Francisco. I’m shaking my head. The United States of America is fucked up beyond all repair. It’s too much to handle. I will arrive at Los Angeles International Airport at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning. I’ll talk to you later. I love you.
While some may look at the message as a breakdown of language in a modern world, it helps to consider its density. The code relays a lot of information in a short space. That is the simple function of acronyms. The online dictionary, Acronym Finder, lists five million entries divided into categories like Information Technology (IT), Military & Government Agencies, Business & Finance Agencies, and Pop Culture. Today, acronyms are so ubiquitous, linguists see their 20th and 21st-century use as a language phenomenon moving in tandem with our industrial and post-industrial ages.
Acronyms vs Initialisms vs Abbreviations
In general, abbreviations shorten a word or phrase but don’t always create new words, e.g., Dec. is pronounced “December,” and N.Y. is still “New York.”
An acronym, on the other hand, is an abbreviation where the first letter or series of letters in a phrase create a new “pronounceable” word, e.g., NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Today, acronym is commonly used to include both acronyms and initialisms; a trend many grammar mavens believe should be kept distinctly separated.
The term initialism (1899) is older than acronym (1940), but less often used. As the word implies, it’s an abbreviation consisting of initial letters that are pronounced separately, like CPU (central processing unit), and the four-century-old AM/PM (ante meridiem, “before noon”/post meridiem, “after noon”).
Two thousand years ago, when larger works required labor-intensive use of hard materials like clay, stone, and metal, or parchment, which was an expensive commodity, artists, engravers, and copyists were forced to use their resources efficiently. Throughout the medieval period, when writing implements and parchment were scarce, acronyms were more frequent. Terms like RIP (requiescat in pace; “Rest in Peace”), or the abbreviation Xmas, (Χριστος, Christ; “Christmas”), are quite ancient and served as a revered shorthand in early religious writing. More examples, both BCE (before the Common Era) and CE (the Common Era) include:
- SPQR – The official name for the Roman Empire, and the Republic before it (Senatus Populusque Romanus). The Italians have long used a different and humorous expansion of this abbreviation, “Sono Pazzi Questi Romani” (literally: “They’re crazy, these Romans”).
- ΙΧΘΥΣ – The early Christians in Rome used the image of a fish as a symbol for Jesus in part because of an acronym: “fish” in Greek is ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ), which stands for Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ (Iesous Christos Theou huios Soter; “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”).
- INRI – For centuries, the Church has used the inscription INRI over the crucifix, (Latin Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum; “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”).
- TANAKH – The Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) This is acronym composed of the Hebrew initial letters of its three major sections: “Torah” (five books of Moses), “Nevi’im” (prophets), and “K’tuvim” (writings).
From the late 19th century, a trend of abbreviation use swung into the fields of business, science, technology, government, and the military. Convenience, space restrictions, and cost are some of the reasons contractions became popular, if not necessary.
The American and European business communities of the late Victorian era led the charge. Shortened versions of company names started appearing on the sides of railway cars, on barrels, ticker tapes, newspaper headlines, stock listings, and in telegraph code manuals. Examples include RF&P (Richmond Fredricksburg and Potomac Railroad), AT&T (American Telegraph and Telephone Company), Nabisco (National Biscuit Company), and Sunco (Sun Oil Company). These contractions were treated as abbreviations and initialisms. The habit of forming pronounceable acronyms wouldn’t take off until the mid 20th century.
By the end of the Great Wars, the common vernacular adopted many military acronyms like G.I. (General Issue/Galvanized Iron) for soldiers, AWOL (Absent Without Leave) for those deserting their ranks, and SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up.) Today, one needn’t have served in the military to know acronyms like MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), AFB (Air Force Base), and DOA (dead on arrival). We learn to navigate this language in popular media, highway signage, government forms, IDs (identification), and in daily TV (television) news reporting.
During WWI (World War 1) and WWII (World War 2), when letters to and from soldiers overseas numbered in the billions, our great grandparents were doing their own form of sexting on the backs of envelopes: SWAK (sealed with a kiss), NORWICH (kNickers Off Ready When I Come Home), CHINA (Come Home I’m Naked Already); and from sailors, OOLAAKOEW (Oceans Of Love And A Kiss On Every Wave). These patriotic missives were referred to as V-Mail (Victory Mail).
FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) was well known for his New Deal alphabet agencies, like CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp), CWA (Civil Works Administration), and DRS (Drought Relief Service). With the explosion of acronyms came YABA (yet another bloody acronym) and the need for “YABA-compatible” abbreviations in government and the military that could be easily pronounced while not creating an offensive word.
As acronyms moved into common use, from whence they came is sometimes forgotten. Relatively recent acronyms that have lost their initialized form to become common words include RADAR (radio detection and ranging, 1940s), SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, 1950s), and LASER (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, 1960s).
While the younger generation will never know how hip and cool things like CB radios (citizen’s band radio), VCRs (videocassette recorders), and FAXs (facsimiles) once were, with the times, so goes the technology. In the 21st century, as we move deeper and more wholly into an online world, Millennials have taken the ball and are running.
The wide use of text messaging and the need for abbreviated language to fit character limits, SMS (short message service), IM (instant messenger), and platforms like Twitter have dedicated patrons inventing acronyms as fast as we can learn them. Just about every sector of military and civilian life has its own list of must-know acronyms. Today’s youth, like medieval scribes of old, write private messages in a revered code: GF/BF (girlfriend/boyfriend), BFF (best friend forever), DL (down-low), BAE (before anyone else), #’s (hashtags), and /s (end sarcasm.) According to online search data, the top ten in this category include:
- ROFL – Rolling on the floor laughing.
- STFU – Shut the fuck up.
- LMK – Let me know.
- ILY – I love you.
- YOLO – You only live once.
- SMH – Shaking my head.
- LMFAO – Laughing my fucking ass off.
- NVM – Never mind.
- IKR – I know, right?
- OFC – Of course.
While prescriptivists disdain abbreviations for degrading clarity and proper language, others argue that evolution is inevitable where changes most often occur in response to a cultural need. In a fast-paced world, that need is brevity, convenience, and saving space.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also be interested in what the X in LAX actually means, how the industrial revolution changed the English language, or the NSFW use of expletive infixations!
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