Spotter's Guide to Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations: 17 Species Seen in the Wild
22 November, 2022
Like birds and trees, abbreviations are often seen in the wild and seldom remarked on. But, like slime molds and toads, abbreviations come in more kinds than most people realize and, while some people find them repellant, others can be quite passionate about them.
Many people get excited about distinguishing acronyms from abbreviations in general, and even more excited about distinguishing initialisms (where you say each letter, as in VIP) from acronyms (which you say as words, like NATO). Other people can be very particular about whether an abbreviation is a contraction, formed by leaving letters out of the middle (as in Dr.), or a truncation, formed by removing letters from the end (as in Co.)—they may feel that the latter should have a period but the former should not.
But the ways of nature are many and varied, and sometimes things are just not so tidy. And so, in the service of helping word workers recognize and deal with them better, we present a list of some interesting types of abbreviations—and how to serve them up. Think of it as your combination field guide and cookbook.
The Syllable Acronym
Initialisms have existed for a long time—SPQR for “Senatus Populusque Romanus” flew on Roman banners, for example—but it was only in the twentieth century that people really got into making pronounceable words from letter acronyms. Before those were a big thing, people were making acronyms from the first syllables of words. There are many of those out there today that you may not have realized were formed that way: Nabisco, from “National Biscuit Company”; Soweto, from “South West Township”; TriBeCa, in New York City, from “Triangle Below Canal.” The biggest challenge with this kind is whether to capitalize letters inside them (SoWeTo? Tribeca?). Above all, do not put periods in them.
The Assimilated Acronym
There are some words that started out as acronyms but have become so common in ordinary usage that they are treated as ordinary words and spelled all lower-case, such as scuba and snafu. If you put these in all caps—or all small caps—you are likely to look overly fussy, and if you put them in all caps with periods—S.N.A.F.U.—it would really be a snafu. There’s more to editing than showing that you know things!
The Acronym Pronounced According to What It Stands For—or Not
Usually, acronyms are pronounced according to usual patterns of English word pronunciation. However, there are exceptions. A salient one is GIF. It would be controversial in any case because g before i usually sounds like “j” but GIF looks like GIFT. But there’s the added dimension that it stands for “Graphic Interchange Format,” so some people insist that the G must be said as in “graphic”—but the guy who invented the term has always insisted that it should be pronounced “jif,” because it’s a g before an i. The war over this one is still raging. Fortunately, the difference rarely has any effect on written text.
The Forgotten Exception
If your organization has a house style, it’s likely to have a sweeping style rule for acronyms (i.e., acronyms and initialisms), such as that that they are to be in all caps and without periods (e.g., USA, PDQ). But it’s probably overlooked some exceptions that are so common people don’t even think of them—for example, e.g., from Latin exempli gratia, and i.e., from Latin id est, which clearly should not be EG and IE. If you’re involved in building a house style, consider adding specific style sheet entries—and you’ll also want to say whether to put a comma after e.g. and i.e. And while you’re at it, what are your rules for a.m. and p.m., and for AD and BC? Should you try to be consistent? You have decisions to make—or at least things to look up in your preferred style manual.
The Mixed Case
Every so often you’ll get to a term such as radar (“RAdio Detection And Ranging”) or COVID (“COrona VIrus Disease”) that is part syllable acronym and part letter acronym. With radar, it’s become an ordinary noun, so there’s no fuss anyway. But with some others, you’ll need to be conscious of which letters should be capitalized or not—in the case of COVID, the World Health Organization set it as all caps rather than as CoViD, and now the main concern is more whether the term has passed so far into common usage that we can set it as Covid or even covid. Initialisms aren’t immune to mixed cases either: nvCJD is “new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease,” for example, and of course PhD and BSc are common university degrees. Make sure to set these down instance by instance in your style guide—including use of periods, or not!
The Disguised Initialism
Occasionally, an initialism will be converted to a spelling of its pronunciation. Standard Oil, for instance, took its initialism, S.O., and turned it into the brand name Esso. The organization commonly called the Jaycees is really the Junior Chamber. But disguised initialisms don’t always completely kayo their original forms—many people know that kayo comes from “k.o.” for “knock out,” for instance.
The “X Equals What?”
A special feature of modern English initialisms is that the letter X stands for the syllable “ex.” This is undoubtedly mainly for the same reason X is so popular in branding: like Q and Z, it’s relatively uncommon in ordinary text, and so it’s rather catchy. This is why Extensible Markup Language is XML, not EML. But X is also sometimes used to stand for other things—for instance, in medical abbreviations, Rx or rx (originally from ℞, standing for Latin recipe) stands for “prescription” and dx stands for “diagnosis.” More casual abbreviations such as soclx for “sociolinguistics” are best avoided in all but the most in-groupy informal contexts.
The Half Initialism, Half Acronym
In general, when we can pronounce a set of letters as a word, we do (though see below for exceptions!). And this can even extend to making hybrids where we say some parts of an abbreviation as letters and others as a word. A popular example of this is JPEG, “jay-peg,” which stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group.” Others include CMOS (“see-moss,” for “complementary metal oxide semiconductor,” a kind of camera sensor; don’t confuse with CMOS, for Chicago Manual of Style) and CD-ROM (“cee dee rom,” for “Compact Disc Read Only Memory”). This can affect editing—for instance, the Medical College Admissions Test, MCAT, is “em-cat,” not “mick-at,” so it’s “an MCAT score,” not “a MCAT score.”
The “Is It an Initialism or an Acronym?”
Sometimes some people say an abbreviation as a word and others say it as an initialism—for instance, FAQ, for “frequently asked questions.” You’ll need to determine whether your house style is “a FAQ” or “an FAQ.” And sometimes even when an acronym isn’t really pronounceable, someone makes in inventive way of pronouncing it. SQL, for instance, which stands for “Structured Query Language,” is regularly pronounced—by those who work with it—as “sequel,” and if you write “an SQL server” you will be laughed at mercilessly by those in the know.
The Airport Code
Airports around the world have three-letter codes, many but not all of which are formed, sometimes inventively, from abbreviations of the city name or some other name associated with the airport: JFK for “John F. Kennedy” (New York), EWR for “nEWaRk” (also New York), ORD (Chicago O’Hare) for the ORDeal that—oh, sorry, it’s from “old ORcharD.” “Los Angeles International” is LAX, with X for “International.” Meanwhile, all Canadian airports start with Y: YVR for VancouveR, YYC for Calgary, YYZ for Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport (why the Z? probably not because it’s the last place anyone wants to fly through, but…).
Editors need to watch for three things with these: First, is it correct? Or is someone putting NWR for Newark, or LAG for La Guardia (which is LGA), or CHI for Chicago O’Hare? Second, is it clear? Will readers know you’re referring to Edmonton, Canada, when you use YEG? Third, is it being used for the airport or the city? In some cities it has become common to use the airport code to refer to the city—often when you see someone referring to YEG online, they mean the city of Edmonton, not specifically its airport (which, ironically, is well outside city limits). You’ll want to be clear about that—and make sure your readers are clear too.
The “Letters Can Be Numbers”
There’s a certain something to the words double and triple that pleases us enough to say AAA (“American Automobile Association”) as not “aaa!” or “A! A! A!” but “triple A” and to say IEEE (“Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers”) as not “ayeee” or “I, E, E, E” but “I triple E.” Once again, it’s worth knowing how an abbreviation is pronounced so you don’t end up with “an AAA road map” (on the other hand, given that not all your readers may know the “right” pronunciation, consider avoiding the issue: “a road map from the AAA”).
The “Numbers Can Be Letters”
If letters can be said as numbers, why not just put letters in place of numbers? That’s what W3C (“World Wide Web Consortium”) and 3M (“Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company”) did. You may not even know what the branding originally stood for. That’s OK—you won’t be the only one. Some other abbreviations use numbers to indicate the number of letters they stand for: i18n for “internationalization,” and a11y for “accessibility”—an abbreviation often misread as “ally” and ironically not all that accessible.
The “Do I Italicize It?”
Some acronyms (and initialisms) stand for titles of publications: NYT for New York Times, OED for Oxford English Dictionary, CMOS for Chicago Manual of Style. Make sure you specify in your house style whether these should be italicized! (Incidentally, CMOS says yes.)
The “Do I Capitalize It?”
Some acronyms are sometimes capitalized and sometimes not, and you’ll need to look up—or decide—which you should do. For instance, is a British public limited company plc or PLC? Is a postscript PS or ps? Or—coming back to the ever-present question of periods—is it P.S. or p.s.?
The Misread Acronym
Most of the time, people will take the path of least effort, which means pronouncing an abbreviation as a word rather than as letters wherever possible. Occasionally, however, a context comes along in which people expect formality and difficulty, such as in things medical. This is apparently how ObGyn—a syllable acronym formed from “obstetrician/gynecologist”—has often come to be written OBGYN and said by many as “oh bee gee wye en.” Which, aside from being a waste of effort, is rather ess eye el el wye. As an editor, however, you care about getting your facts straight, but you also care about not distracting your audience from the key information, and if your readers are used to OBGYN, you may have a judgment call to make on capitalization!
We usually think of an acronym as being a shortening of an existing phrase or, at most, a phrase chosen to be shortened into something catchy—for example, the neighborhood of Brooklyn called DUMBO, from “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” But sometimes an existing word gets reanalyzed as an acronym. The Apgar Score, health assessment for newborn babies named after Virginia Apgar, has been backronymed to stand for “Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration.” This can be a challenge for the editor: do you set it as Apgar, after its namesake, or APGAR, after what it is now used to stand for?
And then there are some words that many people like to believe were formed from abbreviations that certainly were not. The word snob, for instance, does not come from a mark in Debrett’s of “s.nob.” indicating “sine nobilitas”; no such mark has ever existed. The word posh does not come from a stamp on steamer passage tickets indicating “port outward, starboard home”; no such stamp was ever used. The word golf does not come from “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden,” and if you ever believed that it does, beware of people selling you bridges too. The word gorp does not come from “good old raisins and peanuts,” and raisins and peanuts are not exclusive or essential ingredients in this variety of trail mix.
And, FFS, no vulgarity has ever been created from an acronym. Acronyms are inherently euphemistic; we use them to hide vulgarities, as in snafu and FFS. And, as already mentioned, letter acronyms have only been used regularly to make common words for a bit over a century, whereas our “four-letter Anglo-Saxon words” have been around since time immemorial—and long before literacy was so widespread that their average user would have understood an acronym anyway.
The Thing They All Have in Common
These are just a few of the many kinds of abbreviations out there. As you can see, the crisp distinctions some people like to make are not always so clear-cut. What all abbreviations have in common is that they stand for something longer, they may not be clear to everyone, they may need to be defined, and you will need to have clear and consistent standards on capitalization and punctuation for them. Keep in mind always that the purpose of abbreviations is to aid a reader’s understanding rather than cause additional confusion!
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