Is there a difference between acronyms and abbreviations? Most people think they’re pretty similar … and they’re definitely used in similar ways. But, there are slight differences
What is an abbreviation?
An abbreviation is any shortened or contracted form of a word or phrase. Did you catch the word any in there? That means abbreviation is the blanket term for all these shortened words we’ve all been using on social media. Rly is a great example … we just took out the vowels—who needs ‘em—and now it’s an abbreviation.
What is an acronym?
For one, acronyms are types of abbreviations.
Specifically, an acronym is a specific type of abbreviation formed from the first letters of a multi-word term, name, or phrase, with those letters pronounced together as one term. OPEC—or the O(rganization of) P(etroleum) E(xporting) C(ountries)—is an acronym because we pronounce it as one word, oh-pek.
What is an initialism?
Initialisms are types of acronyms. They are also created when a phrase is represented by the first letter of each word that makes it up but they are usually pronounced by saying each letter of the acronym, like IDK and ATM (not ah-tem).
To complicate the issue, there are hybrid forms—part initialism, part acronym—like CD-ROM and JPEG—for which one term is as good as the other.
When did we start using abbreviations?
Phew, that was a lot … but, fun fact, this isn’t a new invention. Using abbreviations has been something people have been doing since the 1400s. Even then, it was a way to save time in communication, writing larger ideas down in smaller ways.
Initialism is also pretty historical as it arose at the end of the 1800s, combining initial with the suffix -ism, which forms nouns from verbs like baptism.
But, acronym is relatively new. Some claim it was first used in 1943 by scientists at Bell Laboratories from a blending of acro- meaning “tip” (like acropolis) and -nym meaning “word” (like synonym). Though there is also a record of the word being used as early as 1940 from the German term akronym.