Acronym Mysteries: Fascinating Facts and Secrets from the World of Abbreviations

Acronym Mysteries: Fascinating Facts and Secrets from the World of Abbreviations

Giovanni Blandino Published on 4/19/2024

Some fill contemporary history books – CIA, KGB, NASA, Brexit -, others we encounter in everyday life: INPS, SIM, Ikea (yes, even Ikea!). These are the acronyms, particular abbreviations that can be read as if they were a single word. Names that remain so firmly imprinted in the mind that they rightfully enter our daily dictionary–so much so that, often, we forget their acronym origin.

Generally, acronyms are formed from the sequence of one or more letters of the words in a phrase or designation. For example, NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration or Brexit stands for Britain and exit and stands for the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union – that is, the EU.
But how do acronyms come about? And what are the most famous ones? Here’s a journey into the world of these particular abbreviations: from the oldest ones to those of the 20th and 21st centuries, via the unsuspected words you’d never guess were acronyms. And, yes, we’ll even explain the acronym Ikea!

Historical acronyms

When are acronyms born? We already tell you that there is no way to answer this question. There are certainly ancient examples of acronyms dating back to the first centuries after Christ, the certain thing however is that it will have to wait until the twentieth century for acronyms to become a common way of forming new words. Suffice it to say that the word acronym itself did not come into existence until around 1950.

Among the oldest acronyms we know of are two that have to do with Christianity. They are ΙΧΘΥΣ and INRI. ΙΧΘΥΣ means fish in ancient Greek and is the acronym used by early Christians to refer to Jesus Christ-the initials stand for the phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God the Savior.” It is often found inscribed in enclosed lines that go precisely to resemble the shape of a fish and is one of the oldest Christian symbols that have come down to us. INRI, on the other hand, is the acronym affixed to the cross where Jesus was crucified and is formed from the initials of the Latin phrase Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, in Italian “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

The ancient Romans also used many abbreviations on their coins-the most famous being S.P.Q.R (Senatus Populusque Romanus)-but in this case we cannot properly speak of acronyms as much as acronyms, since they are abbreviations that cannot be read as a single word but as a set of letters (the same reason why FBI, technically, is not an acronym but an abbreviation).

Leaping forward in time, we find a curious example of a reverse acronym, that is, an existing word used as an abbreviation for an ad hoc constructed phrase. It is the middle of the nineteenth century and the words Viva Verdi begin to appear more and more often on public walls in Milan and Venice. What appeared to be a tribute to the great composer was actually a resurgent and patriotic hymn: Viva Vittorio Emanuele king of Italy.

Coming to the twentieth century we can mention two infamous acronyms: Gestapo and Gulag. The former stands for Geheime Staatspolizei: the secret police of Nazi Germany. Gulag-the Soviet labor and repression camps, on the other hand-is an acronym for Glavnoe upravlenie lagerej (Italian: general directorate of labor camps).

Acronyms that don’t sound like it

Let us come to today and the acronyms that are so successful that we forget their origin as abbreviations.
We quickly reveal that Ikea stands for Ingvar Kamprad-the founder’s name-and Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd, respectively the Swedish farm and village where he was born. Even the famous m&m’s colored chocolates owe their name to their inventors: they stand for the surnames Mars & Murrie’s.

Staying on the subject of brands, Yahoo! – one of the first search engines on the web – is also an (inverse) acronym. And exactly it stands for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle. The full word Yahoo in English, however, has the meaning of rough, wild, ungainly. The two creators were not lacking in irony since the name originally chosen was “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web”-in Italian: Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.

TIME magazine, on the other hand, takes its name from the definition The International Magazine of Events (i.e., “”The International Magazine of Events”), while the name of the smart car manufacturer is an abbreviation of Swatch Mercedes ART. In fact, the idea for the brand is from Nicolas Hayek, the creator of Swatch watches, who-after several wanderings-found in Mercedes Benz the right partner for his new product.

Finally, there are words that have now entered the everyday language, so much so that they are no longer even spelled in capital letters: such as smog (smoke + fog), motel (motor + hotel), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), radar (radio detection and ranging) or quasar (quasi star).

Acronyms that are not.

We conclude with two words that appear to be acronyms instead, but are not. The first is SOS-you can rack your brains all you want, but it is not an abbreviation of any definition. Simply the name was invented that way because in Morse alphabet it is very easy to convey!

Finally, many of you may have heard that spas are named after their Latin origin: salus per aquam (Italian: health by water). We must reveal to you that this is an urban legend: in all likelihood, the name comes from the Belgian town of Spa, which has been famous since the 15th century for its health-giving springs.
And are you ready to create the perfect acronym for your brand or project? This free tool can help you!