More initialism complexities

My posting here on acronyms vs. initialisms led to some further complexities with initialisms, in particular things that are written as sequences of upper-case letters but are (at least usually) not pronounced either in the fashion of acronyms (as ordinary words) or in the fashion of initialisms (as sequences of letter names). Instead, if they’re pronounced at all — some seem to be purely orthographic entities — they’re “read out” as a sequence of words making an English expression.

The world of e-mail, newsgroups, message boards, texting, and so on has a rich assortment of such abbreviations (though some people don’t use them at all, or use them very sparingly): FWIW, AFAIK, BTW, IM(H)O, TMI, WTF, BFD, and on and on. FWIW, for example, is read out as “for what it’s worth”, and it has the semantics of that expression.

These “eye initialisms” are therefore a lot like ordinary abbreviations, which go right from an orthographic entity to an expression of a language (from N.Y. to “New York”, for instance), without a pronunciation as a sequence of letter names.

In “regular initialisms”, the sequence of letter names is available as a pronunciation, and is in fact the usual pronunciation, although the full expression is sometimes read out. So FBI can be read as “eff-bee-eye”, though “Federal Bureau of Investigation” is also possible.

A further complexity, discussed on Language Log a while back (here and here), with lots of examples, has to do with “orphan abbreviations”, in particular orphan initialisms. These are historically alphabetic abbreviations (of one type or another), which have lost their connection, for most speakers, with their historical sources. Sometimes it is simply stipulated that the abbreviation “doesn’t stand for anything”: SRI (with headquarters in Menlo Park, California), a name now stoutly claimed not to stand for anything, though it started as Stanford Research Institute.

Sometimes the abbreviation just becomes the name commonly used by virtually everyone, and few can recall how it arose. Heidi Harley reports that her students at Arizona know that the GOP denotes the (U.S.) Republican Party, but few of them know that GOP was originally an initialism for “Grand Old Party”. As in so many cases, origins get lost over time; it’s important for speakers to know what expressions currently mean, but (fascinating though the details of language change can be) it’s not really important for them to know how these expressions came to mean what they do now.

3 Responses to “More initialism complexities”

  1. Kikipotamus the Hobo Says:

    Please keep up these fascinating posts. As a future ESL teacher and recent convert from prescriptivism to descriptivism, I can’t get enough of this stuff.

  2. Jens Fiederer Says:

    I can attest that TMI is, indeed, pronounced as an initialism at times, having heard those three letters pronounced in sequence at least a dozen times.

    Perhaps I should be more discreet.

  3. mollymooly Says:

    I was surprised to hear the “Economist” audio edition readers pronounce “e.g.” and “i.e.” as initials, rather than as “for example” and “that is”.

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