Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Earliest Acronym Wasn't One?

For some unknown reason, perhaps the plethora of acronyms in use below the 49th parallel (TARP comes immediately to mind), I got to wondering the other day what the first acronym was, historically speaking.  It turns out the answer is complicated.  Acronymy is a linguistic process that has existed throughout history without being recognized as such until relatively recently.  A type of acronymy called an initialism (sometimes called alphabetism) was used in Rome before the Christian era (BCE, so to speak or - as we used to say before British Columbia gained exclusive use of it, BC).  The official name for the Roman Empire and the Republic that preceded it was abbreviated as SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) even back then.  The word acronym itself was only invented in 1943 by David Davis of Bell Laboratories.  Initialisms and acronyms are two types of abbreviations.  Okay, acronyms were around before we called them acronyms - I get that.  But was SPQR the very first initialism?  And which came first, initialism or alphabetism?  Thank Buddha, Stage 3 of one of my favorite sporting events, Le Tour de France, is about to start.  I'm outta here!