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Acronym vs Anacronym

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  Teri Lapping  —  Grammar Tips
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Acronym vs Anacronym

Do you know the difference between the words Acronym vs Anacronym? 

At first glance, we might be tempted to think that the two words, “an acronym,” mistakenly merged into the one word, “anacronym” – indeed, it appears that way! But, in reality, these are two separate words, with two separate histories and definitions.

In this article, Acronym vs Anacronym, I will explain the meaning of each word and its etymology, and I will give examples to illustrate their slight but significant differences. 

What is an Acronym?

Etymology of an Acronym:

The word acronym was first used in German in the 1900s (Akronym), and appeared in English in the 1940s, a relatively new edition to our language. It is derived from the Greek word akron (which means end, peak), and the word onuma (which means name).

Definition of an Acronym:

Acronyms are vibrant examples of how language changes and adapts.

In its most broad definition, an acronym (pl. acronyms) is a type of abbreviation that is formed by using the first letters of the words in a name or phrase to form a new word that has meaning and can be spoken.
In the beginning of their lives, acronyms are formed from names or phrases that have been abbreviated. 

During this phase of creation, most acronyms use periods after every letter. 

For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was abbreviated to N.A.S.A. Over time, the periods were dropped, forming NASA, a new word that exists without inner punctuation. 
If the individual letters of an acronym are pronounced, it is called initialism. 

Examples include:

ATM (Automated Teller Machine) 
FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) 
VIP (Very Important Person) 
BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)  
OMG (Oh My God). 

Initialism is used as a communication shortcut, and can be found in daily speech, in science, in technology, and in social media, to name a few. 

An acronym can also be pronounced as a word, in and of itself.

For example, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries became OPEC, and it is pronounced as a word, not as separate initials. 

Other examples include:

UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund)
PIN (Personal Identification Number)
TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language)

When an acronym capitalizes the beginning of separate syllables, it is called a telescoped acronym.

For example, Nabisco (National Biscuit Company).

When writing acronyms, Americans generally tend to capitalize all the letters in a spoken acronym (such as NATO), whereas the British capitalize as they would a standard word (such as Nato).

What is an Anacronym? 

The Etymology of an Anacronym:

The word anacronym (pl. anacronyms) first appeared in the 1980s. It might have originated as a blend between the words: anachronism (something that is out of its proper chronological order) plus acronym (a type of abbreviation). It might have been a mistaken merger between the two wordsan acronymthat then persisted over time. 

Definition of an Anacronym

An anacronym is evidence of further language development.

An anacronym is an acronym that has been used so frequency that it has become a word it its own right. It is a type of acronym that has lost its connection with its original meaning; that is, it has an identity separate from its etymology, and it is treated as an independent word, not an abbreviation of a longer word.

 It is written in lower case, and no capitals are used – there is nothing to remind us of its etymological beginnings. When we encounter the true origin of an anacronym, we are often completely surprised. 

Examples include:

scuba (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus)
radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging)
taser (Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle)
laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation)

Final Thoughts

An acronym is a type of abbreviation.
An anacronym is a kind of acronym that has moved onward into the realm of real words, leaving no trace at all of its history as an abbreviation. 

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