This week’s language term, acronym, likes to keep it short. Oh, he can explain to you what lies behind him, but much rather he gives you the summary. Then we all have time for something else.


An acronym is an abbreviation made up of the first letters of a number of other words.

We distinguish two types of acronyms:

  1. If you pronounce an acronym letter by letter (think of apkand UWV), you call it an initial word.
  2. If you pronounce an acronym as an ordinary word (as with NATOand vip), you call it an acronym.

(A small reminder with the examples above: apk stands for general periodic inspection; UWV stands for Employee Insurance Implementing Institute; NATO stands for N orth A tlantic T reaties organization; and vip stands for v ery important person.)

This is a broad definition of acronym, and I think the most useful. But there are also language sources who think that only an acronym is a “true” acronym, and that initial words fall into a different category.

Even if you do think of initial words as acronyms, you can go one step further and say that a “pure” acronym should only consist of the initial letters of individual words. According to this stricter definition, KLM ( Koninklijke L uchtvaart Maatschappij ) would therefore not be an acronym, because the l and the m come from one word.

But again, I think it’s more useful to think of acronyms as a category of abbreviations that include both acronyms and initials.


  • aids(van: acquired immune deficiency syndrome)
  • havo(from : higher general secondary education )
  • YOLO(van: you only live once)
  • ANWB(from: General N ederlandsche W ielrijders- B ond )
  • dvd (van: digital video disc)
  • pabo(from: pedagogical academy for primary education )

NB! So a word like HIV is an acronym if you pronounce it rhyming with rif, but an initial word if you pronounce it as “ha-ie-vee”.


This is a young word. It originated in the mid-twentieth century in American English, as an acronym. The Dutch variant soon followed. The ingredients come from the Greek:

  • acro– (highest point, top, end) + onoma (name)

Even more shapes

Another question regarding the definition of acronym is whether an acronym may only consist of the very first letter of each word. In that case, for example, Benelux ( België Netherlands Luxembourg ), which is a syllable word, would not be an acronym. The same applies to catering ( ho tel re staurant ca ) .

But according to a broader definition, such terms do also count as acronyms, in addition to acronyms and initial words.

Yet another question is what to do with “in-between words” such as prepositions. In an abbreviation like UvA ( U niversiteit van A msterdam ), all words count. But, for example, for PABO (above) and laser, these have not been taken into account: the words by and or in “ light amplification by stimulated e mission of r adiationare not included in the abbreviation. Nevertheless, laser is a textbook example of an acronym.

Finally, there are also mixed forms, such as BOVAG ( Bo nd van A utomobielhandels en Garagehouders ), which are even more difficult to classify. Here you can see that the first two letters of Bond have been used, that the preposition of is also included in the abbreviation, that only the first letter has been used with Automobile Dealers and Garage Owners, and that the word and has been omitted completely.

So you see elements of a syllable word and an acronym mixed up here, and a mix of including and not including intermediate words. But I would also say here that BOVAG is an (unusually compound) acronym.

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