Where Did All the Acronyms Come From?

August 15, 2017

In today's world, it is difficult to keep up with all the acronyms, abbreviated words and organizational initialism. Markings on sculpted stones take the earliest word abbreviations back to antiquity. This was mostly due to the fact that there was limited space to write on a stone, so artisans began to use the first letter of each word to abbreviate their inscription. Prior to the Christian era, the Roman Empire adorned doorways, military shields and government buildings with the abbreviation S.P.Q.R. for Senatus Populusque Romanus. From the practice of using abbreviations, the idea of shortening phrases or titles into acronyms was born.

An acronym is a word formed by taking a letter (typically the first letter) from each of the words in a phrase to produce an abbreviation that can be pronounced as a word. For example, scuba (which stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) is an acronym since it is pronounced as a word and not by spelling out its letters. Initialisms, on the other hand, are abbreviations that are not pronounced as a word but are enunciated by the individual first letters, e.g. FBI for the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Many abbreviations are derived from a single word but use multiple letters in that word, such as MD for Doctor of Medicine. Unfortunately, MD can also be used to refer to "Maryland", "Marketing Director", "Mailed" or "McDonnell-Douglas".

Since there are no rules in place as to how expansions are to be used, it is possible that abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms will lose their definitive meaning at some point in the future (likely the near future). Businesses and organizations wishing to protect an abbreviation, acronym, or intialism may do so if they undertake efforts to develop a distinct meaning in the mark separate and apart from the underlying words, e.g. CNN.  However, if an acronym or abbreviation is already widely used in a particular industry, then it is likely a consumer will view it to be synonymous with the descriptive wording it represents, e.g. ATM, and it would be unlikely that it would be protectable under those circumstances. 

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