Archive for April 4th, 2005

Fading language distinctions

Posted in Language on April 4th, 2005

Here are two lists of–well, let’s call them “thingies” for now. What do they not have in common?


The six terms do have some things in common:

  • They all refer to entities in the library field.
  • They’re all spelled with all caps.

The difference is one that seems to be fading away in English, and I think that’s a shame:

While all six are initialisms, only the first three are acronyms.

And yet you see “IBM” and “ALA” and “IEEE” and many other initialisms called “acronyms.” They’re not.

It’s not an arcane distinction. An acronym is a word formed from the first letters of a series of words. It’s automatically an initialism (that is, an abbreviation made up of the first letters of a series of words)–but it’s also a word.

The first response in Google when you enter “define acronym,” sparklist, gets it wrong: “An abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a series of words.” That’s an initialism.

The next seven would be ambiguous, except that two of them use as examples initialisms that aren’t acronyms (IEEE and LRC). Then there’s one that gets it right, but doesn’t use the word “initialism” for the broader range (using “abbreviation” instead).

Here’s the most succinct correct definition I find in Google’s lengthy list:

an abbreviation which is made up of the initial letters of a group of words, and is pronounced as a single word, for example: RAM (Random Access Memory). [a UK site that seems to have gone south]

Call me a fogey (Steven Cohen made me promise to avoid the usual qualifier with that term, at least until my next landmark birthday), but I like to retain distinctions in language. If someone tells me “ALA” is an acronym, I’d expect to hear something that would sound like one term for a deity. (OkLuk and Rilg are too silly to even contemplate as acronyms.)

Incidentally, Wikipedia’s lengthy article on acronyms and initialisms, which has been modified hundreds of times, “gets it right” in Wikipedia’s apparently-preferred non-judgmental style–that is, it says that many dictionaries, but not all, make the distinction. Oh well, I’ve always liked Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries, so I can live with descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) coverage. But I also like this distinction: I believe it’s useful.

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