When does an acronym become a real word?

The first answer that comes to mind is “never!!!” (yes, with at least three exclamation marks) - those confounded cryptic contraptions made of capitalized initials have no right of existence in a decent dictionary!

But haste makes waste: think for instance of words like NASA, LASER, ASAP, POTUS… how many people have forgotten that they once used to be acronyms?
The belle of the ball seems to be laser: from Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation its perceived meaning drifted spontaneously to “something that lases”, where to lase is accepted without frowning as to emit coherent electromagnetic radiation - in physics labs it’s not unusual to hear “[expletive deleted], there’s something amiss with those mirrors, the bloody thing isn’t lasing at all!” .

Just for fun I asked the question to ChatGPT and got in response a few acceptable criteria. But I’d rather keep them to myself until I hear the educated opinions of Etymonline’s most competent human wordaholics - yes, I’m a human chauvinist pig, what’s wrong with that? :smile:

Well, to start, ἀλφάβητος, alphabet, is an acronym.

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Academic as the matter may be, I beg to differ: ἀλφάβητος is a compound word, ἄλφα and βῆτα stuck together and rounded into a single word - actually a synecdoche, a pars pro toto to denote the whole set of Greek characters.
The corresponding acronym would be “*AB”, that thanks to all the Gods of the Olympus never came into common usage :wink:

Which still leaves my question unanswered: when does an acronym turn into a real word?

Monograms first appeared on coins, as early as 350 BC** . The earliest known examples are of the names of Greek cities which issued the coins, often the first two letters of the city’s name. For example, the monogram of Achaea consisted of the letters alpha (Α) and chi (Χ) joined together.

Surely much earlier. Knowing this, in some cases of the monograms found it would in turn be used as a name.

The simplistic but mostly correct answer is “If it’s fulfilling the functions of a word, then it’s a word.” Being spoken as, and understood as, a word. The spelling may or may not change to reflect its change of status; spelling can be slow to catch up to usage, or in some cases never catches up.

I don’t use ASAP as a word, but if someone does, I understand them. I’m not in the US, and when I see “POTUS” written, it looks comical to me, so that in my mind it has an exaggerated pronunciation in ecclesiastical Latin. :slightly_smiling_face: (I’ve never heard it spoken by anyone.)

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I’m not in the US either, and the first time I saw “POTUS” written I wondered long what kind of exotic plant it could refer to… :grin:

As for your suggestion about how to discriminate between acronyms and real words, I find it hardly questionable but slightly tautological - like saying that a wall is white if it has been painted white.

Yet I must admit that the set of sharp, deterministic criteria I’m asking for probably doesn’t exist. The criteria offered by ChatGPT don’t look too bad but are fairly foggy and far from exhaustive. Let’s summarize them briefly (heavily pruned, as GPT tends to be a little verbose):

1- Usage frequency: when many people use the acronym very often.
2- Integration into language: when people use it without realizing that it’s an acronym.
3- Semantic independence: when it starts drifting away from its original meaning.
4- Morphological adaptation: when it starts being inflected, declensed, pluralized, conjugated etc.
5- Acceptance by language authorities: when it appears in dictionaries and scholars stop frowning upon it.

Frankly the only one I would buy without objecting is the “morphological adaptation”: all the others look to me somewhat rickety, prone to criticism, some even slightly humorous. But all in all not to be sniffed at, for the product of a bunch of silicon chips…

ChatGPT is that friend who can find anything online. It copies those human-generated answers that it has been told will probably be the best. It is therefore an excellent practitioner of gossip, as well as finding answers to questions, as long as the question has already been answered in a literally-correct and complete way. But its name sounds better in French: « Chat G P T » sounds just like someone addressing a cat, saying “Cat, I have farted”. Not an acronym, but good for … something.

If you consider some sets of letters that have not become words, I think it’s easier to see that those criteria ChatGPT found are pretty good.


According to what (little) I know about associative neural networks, things are a bit more complicated than that and come pretty close to forming sort of “concepts” that are further processed into sentences by their proprietary arcane algorithms - pretty far away from the easy copy&paste technique used by so many wikischolars :wink:. Which makes the outcome sometimes astonishingly human-sounding, sometimes impressively authoritative but totally wrong, and most of the times utterly unpredictable. But I digress…

Let’s rather see my objections to GPT’s proposals:
1- Does “many people” include teenagers tapping 24/7 on their smartphones?
2- Ditto.
3- Words have that detestable habit too, in particular when (ab)used by politicians. Does that necessarily make them real words?
4- No objections: words get inflected, acronyms don’t.
5- Please define “Language Authorities” - it seldom happens to meet someone who doesn’t think he’s the only reliable one :rofl:

I never dwelt on the French pronunciation of ChatGPT but you’re absolutely right, it hits the bull’s eye with incredible precision! :smile:

  1. Absolutely, yes. Many reasons exist for not including them, but none of those reasons are good.

  2. Still.

  3. If “the nebulous everybody” keeps on using it permanently, then yes.

  4. I hate automatic numbering right now.

  5. What should we call the kind of people who are permitted to give circular definitions of themselves? And who gives that permission? :thinking:

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Potus flowerii, Potus plantus grandifolia, and Potus leguminae subsp. soupii are all well-established here – I don’t consider them exotic. Potus cameratus is mostly in museums now, though. (Sorry, I know that my Latin isn’t even good enough to order a martinus.)


Then we R 2 rprnt most dictnries 4 tapping those fkg long wrds tak 2 long 4 nthng

No, no still: in their homework the same teenagers use the official words quite correctly - well, mostly.

In that case we’ll better devise some graphic sign to tell the ‘drifted’ word from the original one in order to minimize the Babel effect.

So do I, but it saves so much time and toil… :blush:

That’s definitely language-dependent: here in Bavaria we call them Klugscheißer, in English there’s a less satisfactory smartass, French offers a way too gentle petit malin, Italian has a mildly effective cagamiracoli, Polish contributes with a polite mądrala, Spanish has a not very effective sabiondo… there’s no account for taste :grin:

Why, do Gods need permission? :rofl:

Of course! They get it from the other Gods. All of them get permission from each other. The very first one got permission from the second one, and after that, the second one got permission from the first one.

In this way their system resembles equal-tempered tuning in music; the illegitimacy and incorrectness is cleverly distributed so that everyone looks only slightly wrong, and no one knows who to blame for the whole system being wonky. :slightly_smiling_face:

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You’re right, it’s the so-called “cyclical endorsement”. Down to the earth some call it “MAFIA”, others call it “academia”.
In both cases all possible internal differences are taken care of with great discretion within the family :sunglasses: