Reader mollymooly commented on my inventory posting on abbreviations:

[quoting me] “there are two competing terminological schemes (both used in Language Log)”

I think this should read “there are two competing terminological schemes used in Language Log”. There are still other schemes used elsewhere.

In popular usage people use “acronym” for all of the above, and feel proud of knowing such a big word.

At first I was inclined to accept this as a friendly amendment, and I said so in a comment in reply. But then I had serious second thoughts, canceled my comment, and started on another — which then turned into something unreasonably long for a mere comment. Here goes.

To refresh your memory… I make the following distinctions:

larger category alphabetic abbreviation [sometimes just abbreviation, when “ordinary abbreviations” can be excluded in the context], with subcategories acronym (pronounced as an ordinary word) and initialism (pronounced as a sequence of letter names)

Geoff Pullum, following CGEL, uses the terminology:

larger category initialism, with subcategories acronym (as above) and abbreviation (the letter-names case)

In my earlier postings on these matters, I claimed no originality for my terminology, but now that I’ve looked at things (more below), I discover that my usage is absolutely standard; except for acronym, CGEL‘s use of terms is an innovation. So I’m sticking to my usage.

Now in reply to mollymooly: this common use of acronym to mean ‘alphabetic abbreviation’ (of any type) was criticized by Geoff Pullum in two Language Log postings back in January 2006; here’s the key posting, which ends:

Tongue Tied is quite right, though, to point out that Webster’s [this is the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, by the way; there are lots of “Webster’s” dictionaries around] actually lists “abbreviation” as a second meaning of acronym (after an “also“). The Webster’s practice is helpful to dictionary users: it enables a reader to figure out what some people mean when they say “acronym”. That’s good. And paying attention to me will enable you to understand why “abbreviation” is only given as a secondary meaning, and why The Cambridge Grammar uses its terms the way it does. You need to understand both that “abbreviation” is not the original or standard meaning (the American Heritage Dictionary, Tongue Tied notes, does not give that as a meaning for acronym) and that lots of people believe otherwise.

What Geoff is saying is that this is about scientific language vs. loose non-technical uses. Acronym is a fairly recent invention (OED2’s first cite is 1943), originally for technical discussion of language, and it excluded things like FBI and CBS (though it quickly expanded to take in some more complex cases like NaBisCo); the crucial thing is that the things are pronounced like ordinary words.

Neither OED2 nor NOAD2 has the broader sense of acronym as ‘alphabetic abbreviation’, covering initialisms (in my sense) as well as acronyms (in my sense, and CGEL‘s).

But you can see how someone who is unfamiliar with the contrasting technical term initialism (OED2 cites from 1899 on; even the MWOD entry for acronym has a cross-reference to its initialism entry) might fix on the more familiar term acronym to cover initialisms as well. But that’s just loose talk.

For some people, the loose talk has run in the other direction as well: NOAD2’s initialism entry has the expected main sense, but it also lists ‘acronym’ as a subsidiary sense — almost the reverse of things in MWOD.

It’s hard to know what to make of these entries, because it’s not clear what the range of non-technical uses is. In particular, if there are people who use initialism for initialisms and also for acronyms, as the NOAD2 entry suggests, then for them initialism means ‘alphabetic abbreviation’. The problem is how to interpret alternative senses in a dictionary entry, since they don’t distinguish variation between speakers and variation within speakers.

The WOUD entry presents a somewhat different problem, since its subsidiary sense ‘abbreviation’ for acronym would, for most readers, take in ordinary (orthographic) abbreviations, like Prof. for Professor, as well as initialisms.

Someone could, of course, survey the way different people use acronym and initialism in non-technical contexts; there is probably complex variation there.

But in technical contexts, things are clear: in standard technical usage (see OED2), initialism doesn’t denote alphabetic abbrevations in general, nor does abbreviation specifically denote alphabetic abbreviations sounded out as sequences of letter names.

7 Responses to “Acronyms”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    Thanks for expanding on this. My comment to your last post was really two independent points.

    One point was the non-technical use of “acronym” to mean “any kind alphabetic abbreviation”. In a sense this is of no more interest to a linguist than is for an astronomer the non-technical use of “star” to include planets and meteorites and exclude the sun. The extent to which it’s worth making taxonomic distinctions depends on the extent to which there are underlying differences in behaviour; on that basis it’s clear that the acronym-initialism distinction is useful.

    The other point was that there are other technical taxonomies besides yours and Geoff Pullum’s (and the non-technical one).
    – Laurie Bauer uses “alphabetism” for your “alphabetic abbreviation”.
    – Quirk et al 1985 [the other CGEL] use “acronym” for the superclass and “alphabetism” for your “initialism” subclass.
    – The division between acronyms and blends is fuzzy. Do you consider “Nabisco” to be an acronym? What about “Quango”? Laurie Bauer uses “clipping compound” for start_1 + start_2 [eg “sitcom”], leaving “blend” for start_1 + end_2 [eg “motel”]. In German things like “Gestapo” are called “syllabic abbreviations”. Then non-alphabetic languages like Hebrew and Japanese are further removed from English. I don’t know whether anyone has tried to present a cross-linguistic taxonomy –let alone theory– of all the acronymoids.

  2. Rick S Says:

    If I may boldly claim to represent a layman’s point of view for a moment, I would say nobody has got the non-linguist’s “definition” quite right yet, though Mollymooly is close. Before I started reading linguablogs and learned the useful term initialism, I understood an acronym to be any abbreviation consisting of the initial letters of a proper name, invariably capitalized. I think the orthographic properties are definitive to the layperson, and pronounceability is gratuitous. Edge cases like Nabisco and BofA (Bank of America) are probably variably called acronyms or abbreviations. (May I suggest “syllabbrev” for things like NaBisCo?)

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To mollymooly: I hadn’t really appreciated how much variation there is in the linguistic literature; thanks for pointing this out.

    Then on the matter of the many types of abbreviations that are in some sense alphabetic: this is a total minefield, and I doubt that there’s much point in trying to distinguish them all, much less to give them names. Once you get past the central examples of acronyms and initialisms, there’s a big, complex world out there.

    Things like NaBisCo got pulled into the discussion fairly early in the history of these things, by people who noticed that they were in a sense an extension of acronym formation, with initial parts of orthographic words, not just initial letters, strung together. I’ve occasionally called them “acronym blends”, but, as I say, I don’t think there’s a lot of point in terminology-mongering.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Rick S: interesting suggestion for “layman’s acronym“, but probably more restrictive than it needs to be. (Though we shouldn’t neglect the very real possibility that different laypeople have different understandings of the term.)

    The less significant restriction is to all-caps abbreviations. The question is what to say about expressions that originate as acronyms (in the technical sense) but then are orthographically “naturalized” as ordinary words: all lower-case for common nouns like scuba (now virtually always written that way, and so listed in dictionaries) and initial-caps-only for proper nouns like Nato (occasionally so written).

    The restriction to proper names is more troublesome, since it excludes some common-noun acronyms (like AWOL and PIN) and a rather large number of common-noun initialisms (like WMD, CD, DVD, ATM, and HIV).

    Again, there are complexities — in particular, initials-only abbreviations that are sometimes pronounced as sequences of letter names, but more often are “read in full”, like ordinary (orthographic) abbreviations: TMI ‘too much information’, for instance, or taboo semi-avoidance spellings like WTF and BFD.

  5. Jennifer M Says:

    Where do combinations of initialisms (pronouncing the letter names) and acronyms (reading the letters as the word they spell) fall? A friend of mine works with Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS) and pronounces “DV” as letter names and “SAS” as a regular word. I’m also told that the Department of Transportation (DOT) in at least some states is referred to by the first letter of the state’s name followed by the word “dot”: C-DOT, O-DOT.

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Jennifer M: see this posting on acronym-initialism hybrids.

  7. More initialism complexities « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] initialism complexities By arnoldzwicky My posting here on acronyms vs. initialisms led to some further complexities with initialisms, in particular things […]

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