Acronym vs. Initialism

By Maeve Maddox

Every so often I’m taken to task for referring to an unpronounceable string of letters as an acronym instead of an initialism.

I’m sure there must be contexts in which the distinction is important, but I’ve never felt the need to distinguish between acronyms and initialisms in writing for a general audience.

For one thing, the word initialism in its modern sense is even newer than the word acronym.

There is no entry for initialism in either of my pre-digital dictionaries:

Websters New Collegiate Dictionary (1960).
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971).

The presumably more up-to-date Word spell checker puts a red line under the word initialism as I type this article.

Note: The word initialism illustrated by OED citations dated 1899 and 1928 was not being used in the modern sense of initials used to identify an entity like the FBI. It refers to the once-popular practice of signing a published work with initials in order to conceal the identity of the author.

Most readers probably know that an acronym is an invented word made up of the initial letters or syllables of other words, like NASA or NATO. Fewer probably know that an initialism is a type of acronym that cannot be pronounced as a word, but must be read letter-by-letter, like FBI or UCLA.

German had the word Akronym as early as 1921, meaning “a new word made up of initials.”

Americans adopted the word with the English spelling acronym in the 1940s. These dated citations from the OED show that from 1940 to the 21st century, what some speakers now prefer to call initialisms have been called acronyms since the word was adopted into English:

1947 The acronym DDT…trips pleasantly on the tongue and is already a household byword.

1975 The puns on the acronym, ‘CIA’, were spawned by recent disclosures about the intelligence agency.

1985 Called by the acronym SCSD (Schools Construction System Development).

2008 The acronym TSS—Tout Sauf Sarkozy (‘Anything But Sarkozy’).

If it is important to you to distinguish between acronyms (NATO, NASA) and initialisms (FBI, TGIF) then by all means, do so. But if you are speaking to or writing for a general audience, it’s not an error to generalize all words and labels created from initials or parts of words under the broad term acronym.

Related post:
Initialisms and Acronyms

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8 Responses to “Acronym vs. Initialism”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    “if you are speaking to or writing for a general audience, it’s not an error to generalize all words and labels created from initials or parts of words under the broad term acronym.”
    Well, yes it is an error, because initialisms aren’t acronyms.
    If you don’t want to call initialisms ‘initalisms’ (for the very good reason that you don’t think your readers will know the term), then call them ‘abbreviations’ instead. That may be less precise, but at least it’s not incorrect.

  • ApK

    –“Well, yes it is an error, because initialisms aren’t acronyms.

    Sadly, neither you nor I are the arbiters of right and wrong. I would tend to agree with you if we were.

    –“If you don’t want to call initialisms ‘initalisms’ (for the very good reason that you don’t think your readers will know the term), then call them ‘abbreviations’ instead. That may be less precise, but at least it’s not incorrect.”

    I would argue that “abbreviation” would be just as “wrong” (or not) as “acronym.”
    Secretary of Defense ‘abbreviates’ to ‘SecDef’, not to SD. ‘Corporation’ abbreviates to “Corp.” not to “C.”

    But here’s my question: Why not just call “CIA,” “FBI” and the like “initials?” Because that is exactly what they are. Why the need for a different word?

  • venqax

    “Most readers probably know that an acronym is an invented word made up of the initial letters or syllables of other words, like NASA or NATO. Fewer probably know that an initialism is a type of acronym that cannot be pronounced as a word, but must be read letter-by-letter, like FBI or UCLA.

    I would agree with the above, except that the term “intitialism” isn’t one I’d say is “official” in the sense of what that would mean linguistically. But I have (and do) take an acronym to be, specifically, a set of initials pronounced as if it were a word, e.g. NATO, COLA, NASA, SCUBA. whereas a set of initials that is not so pronounced, e.g. FBI, CIA, USA; is not an acronym, simply an abbreviation. But I wouldn’t call initials and abbreviation. I’d call them initials. An abbreviation in my mind is simply a “clipped” or shortened version of a term– corp., inc., Calif., or even memo or fax are abbreviations.

    While we’re at it, I do object to the Wall Street and chemistry terms “symbol”. NL is ot a “symbol” for NL Industries. It’s just an abbreviation. And Li is likewise not a “symbol” for lithium. A red cross or a or a hammer and sickle is a symbol or stick men and women on restroom doors are symbols. Dang it!

  • thebluebird11

    Whoa all…back off! As Maeve said, all these things used to be called acronyms (before the word initialism was coined). Putting all of these under the general umbrella term “acronym” seems to me to be correct. You are still taking (at least) the first letter of each word of a long phrase, and combining the letters into one short “word.” Sometimes the short word is easily pronounceable and sometimes it’s not. I would say that an initialism is a not (easily) pronounceable type of acronym, like FBI (fuh-BEE?)
    Abbreviations are different, in the sense that they may be a few letters clipped off the beginning of ONE longer word (like fax…facs?)
    Of interest (to me) is the efforts people will go to, when trying to create an acronym, so that it IS pronounceable, even if they have to fudge a little bit. People who come up with names for medical research studies do this all the time. For example, TOAST (Trial of Org 10172 in Acute Stroke Treatment) and ENRICHD (Enhancing Recovery in Coronary Heart Disease Patients). Notice they used the “I” from that little word “in” so that it makes the acronym pronounceable. They didn’t call it “Improved Outcomes in Coronary Artery Disease” because IOICAD doesn’t sound as nice as ENRICHD LOL

  • Roberta B.

    @venqax – For Wall Street “ticker symbols” and “symbols” on the periodic table of elements (chemistry), the grouping of letters are not necessarily an abbreviation, but a representation of the name. For example, the ticker symbol for the Coca Cola company stock is KO. There is no “K” or word beginning with “O” for this company or product. Also, a number of chemical elements such as Sodium (Na), Lead (Pb), and Gold (Au) use letters that don’t relate to their names in English, even though they may be considered an abbreviation in another language (usually Latin). Since a symbol is defined as any graphic that represents a meaning accepted by a general consensus, these letters (individually or as groups) can and would be considered “symbols.”

  • venqax

    @Roberta B.– I think you’re right, and that is what a symbol is at its heart, and why they call them symbols on Wall Street. But I strenuously object! While a letter is a symbol, it is very specific symbol that is part of specific symbol set called the Alphabet. So if it’s a letter, call it a letter, and leave that symbol-calling for those thingamabobs that aren’t letters and for which there is no other term. You could say the same for pictograms, actually, like the Restroom signs. Otherwise, when you call a letter or an abbreviation a symbol you are being purposely obtuse! And shame, shame!

    You are right, too, that chemical abbreviations are sometimes taken from non-English names for the elements. My personal favorite is W for tungsten (aka wolfram). But they are all abbreviations, nonetheless. Same with other abbreviations, too: oz., no., lb(s).. etc. This is, of course, one of the Great Problems of Our Age and thankfully there are people like me to fret about it. 🙂

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax and Roberta: I agree with you both, that the Wall Street ticker “symbols” and the chemical “symbols” are symbols, in the sense that they stand for something else. Sometimes they’re abbreviations (of Engish or non-English words), sometimes not. I mean, nobody calls lead “plumbum.” Still, they are letters, which are a very specific type of symbol, and therefore I elect venqax, who worries about this enough for perhaps my entire county, to come up with a new name for symbols when the symbols consist of letters 🙂

  • Neville B

    I had to laugh at this. Our company was taken over by a very large US company, who used as many 3 letter acronyms as possible. To the point that whenever they were introducing some new idea, our first question was “What’s the TLA for that?” (i.e. Three Letter Acronym)

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