Fading language distinctions

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.

4 Responses to “Fading language distinctions”

  1. T. Scott says:

    There’s another way of parsing this set — those that stand in place of the actual name of the organization and those that ARE the name. EBSCO, for example, although it is derived from “Elton B. Stephens’ Company” is the official name of the company. ALA, however, stands for the American Library Association. OCLC stood for two previous names, but no longer — now it is the corporate name. SLA (not one of the ones on your list) no longer stands for Special Libraries Association but is the name of the association. This is the sort of thing that drives copyeditors crazy as they try to figure out when they are supposed to include the actual name that the initialism stands for and when the initialism (whether or not it is an acronym) is the name itself.

  2. walt says:

    True–but not a distinction between the first trio and the second trio. Both sets mix true names and “stand in place” names. NISO in the first set and ALA in the second are abbreviations for the proper current names of the entities.

    But it’s an interesting comment. I always wondered what drove copyeditors crazy. (Cheap shot: Actually, I’ve appreciated most of the copyeditors I’ve worked with.)

  3. Brian says:

    I’ve heard “LRC” pronounced as “lurk” quite a few times, so maybe that one’s an acronym after all.

  4. jessamyn says:

    Fun and only somewhat useful piece of trivia: if you want to provide your readers a helpful guide for what some of the acronynms OR initialisms, you can use the acronym tag in your HTML. So, when you use a term like ALA, you can put tags around it thusly <acronym title=”american library association”>ALA</a> which will get you ALA. People see the word formatted a little differently, and they can mouseover and see what the acronym or initialism stands for. Helpful for accessibility and sometimes just clarity. [now let’s see if the comment box renders it right, second time’s the charm]