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Old 12-01-2019, 01:06 AM
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First corporate acronym


What was the first company name to be acronymized? Either officially or in informal use, it doesn't matter.

Some time back I compiled a list of plane names derived from company acronyms. I later tried to find the earliest one of those. I could only find dates for a small number, but the earliest was in the early 1890s (1892, I think). Unfortunately, I can't find the file that has that info, so I can't say which one it was without redoing the research. At any rate, it's unlikely the earliest example was used for the name of a town, but that gives a target date to beat.
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Old 12-01-2019, 04:21 AM
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I'd offer SPQR, except its not a company. You'll still find it on drain covers and such, so not too shabby.

As a starter let's try VOC - Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or the Dutch East India Company, which managed Dutch trading networks in Asia as well as possessions in island Southeast Asia, now Indonesia. Set up in 1602, the VOC mark appears on company-owned goods, in naming and all sorts of other ways.
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Old 12-01-2019, 04:31 AM
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The British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, both founded in the early 17th Century, were referred to at the time as the EIC and the VOC, respectively.
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Old 12-01-2019, 08:25 AM
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OK, both of those beat out the National Biscuit Company, which is what I was going to suggest.
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Old 12-01-2019, 10:23 AM
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Originally Posted by Alessan View Post
The British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, both founded in the early 17th Century, were referred to at the time as the EIC and the VOC, respectively.
Right. And this makes me think of HBC (Hudson's Bay Company), although I don't know when they started using the acronym.

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Originally Posted by Chronos View Post
OK, both of those beat out the National Biscuit Company, which is what I was going to suggest.
Yeah, Nabisco dates from around the turn of the 20th century. Way too late.

So we have the probable earliest; what about US companies? What's the earliest for them?

Last edited by dtilque; 12-01-2019 at 10:24 AM.
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Old 12-01-2019, 11:08 AM
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The Insurance Company of North America was formed in 1792. All the cites I find refer to it as INA, but none state explicitly that it was known by its initials from the beginning.

It's now part of Cigna. The Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, also a part of Cigna, formed in 1865. It is always referred to today as CG but again I can't find a first mention. The modern name Cigna is a meld of CG and INA. My guess is that the initials have a very long history
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Old 12-01-2019, 03:39 PM
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For a start at something American, can we place BVD’s origin at 1876?

Last edited by The Other Waldo Pepper; 12-01-2019 at 03:39 PM.
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Old 12-01-2019, 05:26 PM
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Originally Posted by The Other Waldo Pepper View Post
For a start at something American, can we place BVDís origin at 1876?
That has the same problem as the ones in my post. Just because the company started in 1876 doesn't mean that people used the initials starting in 1876. I didn't find any 19th century hits in Google Books.
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Old 12-01-2019, 11:31 PM
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Based on a steady diet of black and white westerns, which may or may not bear some relation to reality, various railroad companies were usually referred to by their initials, often in conversations involving railroad barons or train robbers.

Also, people were usually just too plum lazy to say Old Kindersley Corral in full [1872].
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Old 12-01-2019, 11:53 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Banksiaman View Post
Based on a steady diet of black and white westerns, which may or may not bear some relation to reality, various railroad companies were usually referred to by their initials, often in conversations involving railroad barons or train robbers.
Starting in about the mid 1800s, it was very common for companies, especially railroads, to be known by acronyms or abbreviations. It's not just a movie thing.

The earliest reference I could find for the B&O Railroad was 1832. Are you counting something like B&O as an acronym?
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Old 12-02-2019, 12:36 AM
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Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase View Post
The Insurance Company of North America was formed in 1792. All the cites I find refer to it as INA, but none state explicitly that it was known by its initials from the beginning.

It's now part of Cigna. The Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, also a part of Cigna, formed in 1865. It is always referred to today as CG but again I can't find a first mention. The modern name Cigna is a meld of CG and INA. My guess is that the initials have a very long history
They do. People have already pointed to the Dutch East India Company, which was using the cypher "VOC" pretty much from its inception in 1602, and in doing so it was only observing a practice already well-established in the political and civic fields - royal cyphers ("H.R.", for example, used by Henry VIII of England, "R.III" used by Richard III), all the way back to the "S.P.Q.R." cypher adopted during the late Roman Republic and in use pretty much consistently ever since. And we have the Chi-Rho and Iota-Chi cyphers used by Christians, both very ancient.

So, really, pretty much as soon as commercial corporations got going, they were likely to start using cyphers to badge their buildings and property in the same way that political, civic and ecclesiastical corporations were already doing.

I suppose the question is, at what stage did people make the transition from simply using these as badges and marks to "sounding them out", so that they become a spoken name for the corporation concerned? There's unlikely to be much direct literary evidnce of this; we can find all the "VOC" inscriptions we want, but they can't tell us when, or if, people started to talk about "the Vee Oh See" (or Netherlandish euquivalent") to name the company. Unless we find some contemporary writer commenting on this trend, or on the cypher being used, say, in poetry or song lyrics in a way that suggests it will be read out this way, this is going to be a hard phenomenon to date. But I think we can guess that it doesn't happen until basic literacy is fairly widespread. "The Vee Oh See" is meaningless to somebody who doesn't know the alphabet.

Last edited by UDS; 12-02-2019 at 12:37 AM.
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Old 12-02-2019, 01:40 AM
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Might be a different approach - if the acronym becomes the word because it's foreign or not easily understood. (INRI comes to mind - everyone probably recognizes it from context but fewer know what it literally stands for. )
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Old 12-02-2019, 12:15 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by UDS View Post
They do. People have already pointed to the Dutch East India Company, which was using the cypher "VOC" pretty much from its inception in 1602, and in doing so it was only observing a practice already well-established in the political and civic fields - royal cyphers ("H.R.", for example, used by Henry VIII of England, "R.III" used by Richard III), all the way back to the "S.P.Q.R." cypher adopted during the late Roman Republic and in use pretty much consistently ever since. And we have the Chi-Rho and Iota-Chi cyphers used by Christians, both very ancient.
You're misreading what I wrote. Of course the history you cite is true, but that's already been mentioned in this thread.

When I wrote "My guess is that the initials have a very long history" I was referring specifically to the initials of the two predecessor Cigna companies, not any company anywhere at any time.

Quote:
Unless we find some contemporary writer commenting on this trend
And again, that's my point. I did a quick search through newspaper databases to see if those companies were referred to by their initials. No such its came up, but I admit I didn't spend much time looking because "INA" gives hundreds of thousands of false hits. Limiting the parameters to Pennsylvania newspapers of the 19th century (INA was a Philadelphia firm) made the numbers more manageable but nothing other than the full formal name appeared.

I like the suggestion that railroad companies were the first in America to be known that way, though. That makes a lot of sense.
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Old 12-02-2019, 02:11 PM
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There's also a distinction that might be made between sounding out the letters one at a time, versus pronouncing them as a single word. On the one hand, nobody would ever refer to a coherent light beam or the device that generates it as an "Ell Ay Ess Ee Ar", but on the other hand, neither would anyone refer to the US intelligence agency as the "Seeah". "Laser" is always pronounced, but "CIA" is always spelled out.
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Old 12-02-2019, 02:26 PM
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Originally Posted by Chronos View Post
There's also a distinction that might be made between sounding out the letters one at a time, versus pronouncing them as a single word. On the one hand, nobody would ever refer to a coherent light beam or the device that generates it as an "Ell Ay Ess Ee Ar", but on the other hand, neither would anyone refer to the US intelligence agency as the "Seeah". "Laser" is always pronounced, but "CIA" is always spelled out.
That distinction is mainly made by pedants; your average person will call either an acronym. So let's just ignore it for this question.
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Old 12-02-2019, 08:23 PM
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Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase View Post
You're misreading what I wrote. Of course the history you cite is true, but that's already been mentioned in this thread.

When I wrote "My guess is that the initials have a very long history" I was referring specifically to the initials of the two predecessor Cigna companies, not any company anywhere at any time.
Oops. My bad.

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Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase View Post
And again, that's my point. I did a quick search through newspaper databases to see if those companies were referred to by their initials. No such its came up, but I admit I didn't spend much time looking because "INA" gives hundreds of thousands of false hits. Limiting the parameters to Pennsylvania newspapers of the 19th century (INA was a Philadelphia firm) made the numbers more manageable but nothing other than the full formal name appeared.

I like the suggestion that railroad companies were the first in America to be known that way, though. That makes a lot of sense.
I think corporations that trade in goods or handle goods have a much greater use for initialisms, e.g., to stamp on the side of packing cases, or to mark plant and equipment belonging to them. A company that deals largely in financial services or other intangibles doesn't have the same requirement and perhaps, for them, the utility of an initialism is not so obvious until the telegraph comes along, and then an abbreviated name becomes very convenient for use in communications.

Other possibly relevant data points:
- OED's first cite for "U.S.": 1834
- "U.K.": 1892

Last edited by UDS; 12-02-2019 at 08:24 PM.
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Old 12-02-2019, 09:52 PM
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When's the OED's first cite for OED?
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Old 12-02-2019, 10:09 PM
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When's the OED's first cite for OED?
1898, in another dictionary.
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Old Today, 12:26 AM
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The question was about acronyms, not mere use of initials.

I'm going to suggest NECCO (New England Confectionary Co.) as one of the first groups of company initials to be pronounced, circa 1901. Curiously, Nabisco (using the German method of concatenating syllables rather than mere letters) also dates from 1901.

I've been running through all the American railroad names I can think of, but can't come up with any that were ever pronounced as words rather than initials.

Fowler's Modern English Usage suggests the acronym first arose in World War I: ANZAC for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The big boost in the use of acronyms comes with World War II (LORAN, SONAR, RADAR, FUBAR, AWOL pronounced as two syllables rather than four letters); the word acronym itself wasn't coined until 1943.
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Old Today, 08:55 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr Downtown View Post
The question was about acronyms, not mere use of initials.
See post #15

Quote:
I'm going to suggest NECCO (New England Confectionary Co.) as one of the first groups of company initials to be pronounced, circa 1901. Curiously, Nabisco (using the German method of concatenating syllables rather than mere letters) also dates from 1901.
As I said in the OP, at least some of the town names derived from company names date from the 1890s. I couldn't remember which ones, so I did some look-ups of the references and found one even earlier than that:

Elco, Illinois. Named after a local store: E. Levenworth and Company General Store. When trying to decide on a name, someone noticed some boxes stacked in front of the store stencilled E. L. Co. and said, "hey, that's a good name". The town name was changed to Elco on Sept 11, 1878.

link
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Old Today, 09:32 AM
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BTW, Elco is not the first town to get an acronymic name. There's a fair number of towns where the namers took the initials of several people and composed a name from them. There's a list of them here (way down on the same page as the one in the OP).

The earliest of those I could find is Le Mars, Iowa, named in 1870. Here's a description of how they came up with the name:

Quote:
On arriving at the eastern terminus of the road, Mr. Blair gallantly offered to let the ladies name the new town. The ladies caucused and were unable to agree upon a name. Mrs. Ford, a member of the party, then suggested that one be made from the initial letters of the ladies' Christian names. This was done, and from the jumble of initials two names were manufactured, namely, "Selmar" and "LeMars." A vote was taken and a majority favoring LeMars, Mr. Blair adopted that as the name of his town site.
However, that's not the earliest place name acronym I could find. There's an Omphghent Township in Madison County, Illinois. The name is combination of an acronym: Our Mother of Perpetual Help = OMPH plus Ghent, the city in Belgium. This was named in 1858. cite
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