Coerced acronyms

Back in 2007, I posted on Language Log about various types of abbreviation via initial letters of words (in particular, initialisms and acronyms, as in my recent posting on this blog, about hybrids of these) and about which ones are arthrous (with the definite article the) and which anarthrous (without it). As I said back then, one of the crisp generalizations about (an)arthrousness is:

The Acronym Principle: Acronyms are anarthrous (even when the full names they abbreviate are arthrous).

This covers NASAFEMAMOMAUnicefNOAA and other acronyms whose full forms are arthrous.  It covers at least some hybrid abbreviations, like SFMOMA (part initialism, part acronym), and covers in general “coerced” acronyms, where vowels are inserted to make strings of letters (especially long strings of letters) pronounceable. Like NOGLSTP, pronounced like “nogglestup” and standing for “The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals” …

My interest in this note is the coerced acronyms. Take NOGLSTP. This is awfully long — seven letters — to be comfortable as an initialism. The NOG part can be read as an acronym, but then you’re in trouble, so you make the L syllabic and break up STP with a vowel between the ST and the P — /ʌ/ in my pronunciation, but I’ve also heard /a/. That gives you a three-syllable word, with heaviest stress on the first syllable and somewhat less stress on the third, with the middle syllable unstressed — the pattern of paramount and a number of other words.

Another example from my life: AGLBFS, the Association for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Faculty and Staff (of the Ohio State University). The AG part can be read as an acronym, and then, again, you’re in trouble, so you make the L syllabic and break up BFS. There’s more than one way to do this: as BFS (giving something like “buffs”) or as BFS (giving something like “buffus”). The first sounds too much like a plural for my taste, so I prefer the second. The stress pattern is again predictable: heaviest stress on the first syllable, then alternating stress.

(Note that the stress patterns don’t have to be learned, but represent one of the default patterns for English.)

Now for a somewhat different case: FNMA (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and FHLMC (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation). The Federal National Mortgage Association came first (in 1938), and its abbreviation could have been treated as a straightforward initialism, but someone decided to treat the MA as an acronym, pronounced like the word may (or May) — or the girl’s name Mae. That left FN, which got expanded to Fannie, giving the Fannie Mae that’s so often in the news. That’s a name, so it gets the stress pattern for two-part names in English: stress on both parts, but heavier stress on the second.

All of this development, except for the stress pattern, was a creative act, not a kind of automatic filling-in of material to make the abbreviation pronounceable.

With Fannie Mae as a pattern, when the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation came along (in 1970), further creativity was called for. FHLMC ends in MC, which can be read as the masculine name Mac, parallel to the feminine Mae. FHL, however, presents a serious problem, and in the end someone just disregarded the HL and looked for a common masculine first name that started with F and was formally parallel to Fannie: Freddie. And so we got Freddie Mac: Fannie and Freddie (as they are known for short), or FNM and FRE (on the NYSE).

One Response to “Coerced acronyms”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    The Fannie Mae model worked a bit better for Ginnie Mae (GNMA = Government National Mortgage Association) and Sallie Mae (SLMA = Student Loan Marketing Association). In the case of Freddie Mac, the “Freddie” element was suggested by the first syllable of Federal (says the OED). And then there’s Farmer Mac (FAMC = Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation), where “Farmer” has a more transparent semantic relationship to the acronymic target.

    More on Fannie and Freddie here.

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