Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What is an acronym?

There are in fact quite a few nuances to acronyms which I will incrementally explore in this blog, but in its simplest form an acronym is commonly considered to be a word in which each successive letter is (usually)the initial letter of successive words in a compound term. This is also sometimes referred to as an initialism. There is no requirement that only the initial letters be used, that only a single letter be used, that even all words from the compound term contribute letters, that the letters be all capitals, or that the acronym be pronouncable, but those are the common cases. Acronyms are a special case or subset of abbreviations, although we commonly speak of abbreviations for single words rather than for compound terms.

We say that an acronym has a meaning or a definition or that it stands for something, referring to the compound term from which the letters of the acronym are derived.

My two common examples will be ABC for Agent-Based Computing and RDF for Resource Description Framework.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines acronym as:

: a word (as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term ; also : an abbreviation (as FBI: initialism

Note the distinction "initial letter or letters" as opposed to only initial letter, so that SemWeb is technically an aconym for the compound term Semantic Web.

Also note the distinction "successive parts or major parts" as opposed to successive words, so that USA is technically an acronym for United States of America even though no letters of "of" are included in the acronym.

Also note that laser is considered an acronym even though its root compound term (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) would not be recognized by most people today even though the acronym is very commonly used. Further, it is written in the form of a traditional word rather in all caps. Originally, LASER was indeed all-caps, but it has been assimilated into everyday English as a "normal" word.

Try to find anybody who even knows that radar is an acronym, let alone what it stands for (Radio Detection and Ranging.) The Wikipedia article for Radar notes that "The term has since entered the English language as a standard word, radar, losing the capitalization." The article also notes that "Radar was originally called RDF (Radio Direction Finder) in the United Kingdom", which highlights two of the nuances I will explore, the lack of uniqueness of acronym meanings and the variation in meanings across national boundaries. A Semantic Web for acronyms will need to take all of these nuances into account. It is an interesting coincidence that the radar variant of RDF happens to be the same acronym as the Semantic Web RDF that this blog focuses on.

Is W3C an acronym standing for World Wide Web Consortium? That is a tough one. Technically it is not an acronym, but is still an abbreviation of sorts.

I would also not consider i18n to technically be an acronym, but a relatively new and unnamed form of abbreviation for the word internationalization. As far as I know, there is no technical term for abbreviations such as W3C and i18n.

Another nuance I will explore later is exemplified by the acronym CERN which refers to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, but actually stands for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire. That was the original meaning, but now CERN stands for Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire in French. Technically, the acronym should be something like OERN, but in truth there is plenty of room for "poetic license" when forming acronyms. Besides, there is a bias towards making acronyms pronouncable. Thinking ahead, an ontology for acronyms needs to support this range of meanings and variations even for a single term that has a core underlying meaning distinct from the current words themselves.

-- Jack Krupansky


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