Last night we were out at a bar for our daughter’s birthday talking about the now-famous “AI” robot ChatGPT, and I asked the question “What does GPT even stand for?”
No one guessed correctly. (Don’t worry: I’ll tell you at the end what ChatGPT stands for.)
How did it come up? Well recently I was listening to a podcast where a bunch of very talented improvisational performers get their “scripts” written by Chat GPT, and other AI sources as well. Amusingly, one of the actors got the name wrong and started calling it ChatSTD – an easy if somewhat embarrassing mistake to make! Anyhow, their brand new podcast – called GenerationStage – is great fun, and the link is here. Its ridiculously absorbing, five comedians amusing themselves whilst entertaining us.
Anyhow, I’ve been hearing so much abut ChatGPT recently that I feel its going to prove to be an awesome new tool that no one needs to be overly worried about. Unfortunately we humans are often frightened of the unknown.
The printing press was greatly feared at first (and today some perfectly innocent and enjoyable books are still banned from schools and libraries by small-minded bigots all over the world).
When Google’s search engine was invented people feared that no one would research anything any more. In fact, the opposite happened. People research much more. But a new skill was born … people had to apply critical thinking to the stuff Google served up to them. Sifting out the good stuff from the nonsensical or useless. I think our use of AI will be the same, once we get used to it.
And don’t worry – today I’m not writing about banned books because I could go on about them for ages and I won’t do that to you! You don’t need me to be that angry all over your computer!
No, this blog is about acronyms.
So what is an Acronym and where do they come from? You might be surprised how long we’ve been using these little abbreviations.
An acronym is an invented word, name or term consisting of parts of the words that make up its meaning.
Acronyms are usually formed from the initial letters of words, as in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), but also sometimes use syllables, as in Benelux (short for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), and UNESCO The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and UNICEF United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. (Now its actually called United Nations Children’s Fund, but the original acronym is so well known that it’s still used. )
They can also be a mixture, as in radar (Radio Detection And Ranging) and MIDAS (Missile Defense Alarm System).
The distinguishing feature of an acronym is that it is pronounced as if it were a single word, in the manner of NATO and NASA.
Acronyms are distinguished from initialisms (or alphabetisms), like FBI and NIH, whose individual letters are pronounced as separate syllables.
While observing this distinction has some virtue in precision, it may be lost on many people, for whom the term acronym refers to both kinds of initialised abbreviations. By the way, the spelled-out form of an acronym, initialism, or syllabic abbreviation is called its expansion.
There are actually three different types of acronyms: all refer to abbreviations made up of a set of capitalised letters (but not just a shortened word, e.g., Mrs.). The major difference between acronyms and initialisms is that an acronym can be (and is) pronounced as a single word, while an initialism is pronounced as a series of letters.
- a true acronym = an abbreviation pronounced as if it were a word, e.g. SARS = severe acute respiratory syndrome, pronounced to rhyme with cars;
- initialism = an abbreviation pronounced wholly or partly using the names of its constituent letters, e.g., CD = compact disc, pronounced cee dee;
- a pseudo-blend = an abbreviation whose extra or omitted letters mean that it cannot stand as a true acronym, initialism, or portmanteau (a word formed by combining two or more words).
There’s another “pseudo acronym” where the acronym is used as a symbol (representing something which is pronounced as something else; for example: MHz = MegaHertz.)
The word acronym is formed from the Greek roots acr-, meaning “height, summit, or tip” and -onym, meaning “name”.
Acronyms are not a recent invention. They were used in Rome before the Christian era.
For example, the official name for the Roman Empire, and the Republic before it, was abbreviated as SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) – simply, the Senate and the
People of Rome. Inscriptions dating from antiquity, both on stone and on coins, often use acronyms to save space and time. For example, Roman first names, of which there was only a small set, were almost always abbreviated. Common terms were abbreviated too, such as writing just “F” for filius, meaning “son”, a very common part of memorial inscriptions. Grammatical markers were also abbreviated or left out entirely if they could be inferred from the rest of the text.
The actual word acronym appears to have originated in German, with attestations for the German form Akronym appearing as early as 1921.
Interestingly there’s also a thing called a backronym which is an acronym using the first letters of its words into a term or phrase that in itself means something. They work back from what you want to call something. So with the fictional espionage organization of SPECTRE – SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) from the James Bond franchise, the authors started with a word that they thought was suitably evil-sounding and threatening, and then worked out what the words might be that made it up.
Acronyms throughout history
The early Christians in Rome, most of whom were Greek rather than Latin speakers, used the image of a fish as a symbol for Jesus in part because of an acronym (or backronym): “fish” in Greek is ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ), which was construed to stand for the Greek words Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ (Iesous Christos Theou huios Soter: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”). To this day a simple, stylised fish is used as a symbol for Christianity for this very reason.
This ichthys symbol dates from the 2nd and 3rd centuries and is preserved on the walls in the catacombs of Rome. Another ancient acronym for Jesus is the inscription INRI erected over the cross on which he was executed, which stood for the Latin Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (“Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”).
So-called nomina sacra (sacred names) were used in many Greek biblical manuscripts. The common words “God” (Θεός), “Jesus” (Ιησούς), “Christ” (Χριστός), and some others, would be abbreviated by their first and last letters, marked with an overline. This was just one of many kinds of abbreviation, used to reduce the time-consuming workload of the scribe and save on valuable writing materials. The same convention is still commonly used in the inscriptions on religious icons and even the stamps used to mark the eucharistic bread in Eastern Churches. In the Jewish religion it is considered inappropriate to use the whole word God, so it is often rendered G_D.
Other early examples
The use of Latin terms in vernacular language has been seen throughout Europe and predates modern English. Some examples of acronyms in this class are:
- A.M. (from the Latin ante meridiem, “before noon”) and P.M. (from post meridiem, “after noon”)
- A.D. (from the Latin Anno Domini, “In the year of our Lord”), whose complement in English is B.C. (Before Christ.)
By the way, The BC/AD system was invented by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who was trying to establish a Christian chronology; before his time one had to use some system more or less tainted with paganism, such as the AUC system (Ab urbe condita or anno urbis conditae abbreviated as AUC or AVC, expresses a date in years since 753 BC, the traditional founding of Rome).
Alternatively there was consular dating (“the year when X and Y were [Roman] consuls”. But by the sixth century of our era there had been more than a thousand pairs of consuls, which had to be memorized in order.
Dionysius calculated that the year in which he worked was the 533rd since the birth of Christ, so he designated it AD 533 (or AD DXXXIII). It took some time for Dionysius’ scheme to catch on. Bede is the first writer other than Dionysius himself to use it; he dated one of his works AD 704. Still, it wasn’t used universally – the Spanish used an era based on 38 BC well up into mediaeval times, while the Byzantines dated their calendar from 5508 BC. It was pretty well established in Western Europe (other than Spain) by AD 1000.
Many other cultures did it too
The earliest example of a word derived from an acronym listed by the Oxford English Dictionary is “abjud” (now “abjad”), formed from the original first four letters of the Arabic alphabet in the late 18th century. It’s a writing system in which only consonants are represented, leaving vowel sounds to be inferred by the reader.
Acronyms are often taught as mnemonic devices: for example the colors of the rainbow are known as ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). My husband, who is Welsh and therefore a little odd in many ways, insists it should be VIBGYOR.
They are also used as mental shortcut, such e.g. meaning “for example”, from the Latin exempli gratia.
A macronym, or nested acronym, is an acronym in which one or more letters stand for acronyms (or abbreviations) themselves.
“Macronym” is obviously in itself a portmanteau of “macro-” (meaning bigger) and “acronym”. So, AIM stands for “AOL Instant Messenger”, in which AOL originally stood for “America Online” and the A of that acronym then had IM added to it to mean Instant Messenger, thus creating a new acronym.
Do we use acronyms today?
Do we ever! Our use of acronyms is almost a whole new language that needs to be learned.
I found these fabulously comprehensive list of acronyms on the pages of a company called StatusBrew. They call themselves the All in One toolkit for Working with Social Media and they obviously need to know how current language is developing. So below are list of acronyms that apparently are used by Gen Z on their social media. They also have lists of Business Acronyms currently used, and we all know that whatever the industry we are working in, each industry has their own acronyms to facilitate easy and fast communication within groups.
Here are three useful lists from StatusBrew:
Need more help? You can even search in Wikipedia by the first letter of the alphabet for the acronym you need to understand. Link here.
So, back to ChatGPT!
ChatGPT actually stands for, Generative Pre-trained Transformer. Who knew? Well, now you do. Surprise and amaze your friends with this little tidbit.
*Ta-Ta For Now
PS I did a test to see how many acronyms I understand, and I actually did pretty well. Here’s the link to the test – it does take a full 5 minutes!! Here’s the test.Tags: acronym ai calendars chatgpt etymology generationstage genz Google history language Rome shortcuts social media socialmedia spqr words