Looking Glass Language

a word bird reflects on life & language

Wordy Wednesday: acronym

Royal spotting at the Badminton Horse Trials









I discovered a few years ago that acronyms weren’t quite what I’d thought they were… This brings a blush to my cheeks not only because I am now a copywriter, but also because at 14, while working at the Badminton Horse Trials (indulging in a spot of Royal watching while sporting a fetching turquoise t-shirt bearing the legend ‘NatWest is Best’), I’d laughed condescendingly on noticing ‘AIB Bank’ emblazoned on a fellow worker’s t-shirt, and – in the patronising way of a teenage know-it-all – explained to him that the acronym meant Allied Irish Bank Bank – I have a horrid feeling that I might even have attempted this in an Irish accent. Of course, as I later discovered, it wasn’t an acronym at all, it was an initialism. Oh the shame… 

Somehow, I’d missed the part of the definition that said that initials used in place of words are only called acronyms if they actually make up a word. So, while Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave), Radar (Radio Assisted Detection and Ranging) and PIN (Personal Identification Number) are all acronyms, initialisms such as AIB (Allied Irish Bank), are not…


I wasn’t the first to have made this mistake, however, and I’m certainly not the last. It’s common to hear people referring to RSVP as an acronym, for instance, whereas it is, of course, an initialism.

[What’s more confusing is that, although RSVP stands for Respondez s’il vous plait – a French phrase meaning please reply – the initialism RSVP is never used in France. As a result, English ex-pats who’ve issued invitations with RSVP on them frequently tut at the rudeness of French invitees who’ve failed to answer with either an acceptance or refusal…]

In my job as a copywriter, I do a lot of work with telecoms companies (telcos), who use lots of acronyms, so I make a point of looking out for them in copy. I frequently come across nonsensical constructions reminiscent of the Allied Irish Bank Bank, such as, “Your MAC code should be a 17-18 digit alphanumeric number,” (in longhand, ‘Your Migration Authorisation Code Code should be…’). MAC CodeThe same duplication occurs with constructions such as PIN number (Personal Identification Number number), and LCD display (Liquid Crystal Display display).

So, what’s the difference between an acronym, an abbreviation and an initialism?

  • An abbreviation is any kind of shortening of a word, eg Thurs for Thursday, and Jan for January.
  • An acronym is an abbreviation that is pronounceable as a word, eg Radar and Nato.
  • An initialism uses initials but can’t be pronounced as a word, eg BBC and RAC.

According to Richard Shapiro, senior editor at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), abbreviations go “right back until we start recording language in the OED,” with many common words we use today being shortened versions of something else. So, for instance, bus is derived from omnibus, pub from public house and sport from disport (a word that originally meant diversion). Acronyms and initialisms have become prevalent more recently, with AWOL (which actually stands for Absent Without Official Leave rather than the longhand version we tend to use, Absent Without Leave) appearing in the 1890s, and IOU (a phonetic transcription of I owe you), recorded in the 1700s. The latter usage of ‘U’ as an abbreviation for ‘You’ is still in use today within text speak, a form of communication that has thrown up much derided abbreviations such as GR8 and L8a.

In an earlier post (fingered speech: txtng as bilingualism), I mentioned the recent evolution of an abbreviation familiar to the digital generation: LOL. LOL is an intriguing abbreviation, as some people use it as an acronym – pronouncing it as a word, Lol – and others spell the letters out – using it as an initialism. That aside, according to TED speaker John McWhorter, “LOL no longer stands for Laugh Out Loud. Instead it is being used as a ‘pragmatic particle’: a marker of empathy and of accommodation, used in much the same way as one might use ‘uh huh’ in conversation in order to demonstrate empathy and listening and help move the conversation on.

While researching this post, I was amused to discover that this isn’t the first time LOL has changed its meaning. Back in the 1960s it was used not as a pragmatic particle, nor as a stand in for Laugh Out Loud, but instead as a derogatory term for Little Old Lady…

You can find many more interesting examples of the evolution of abbreviations here.

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2 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: acronym

  1. Interesting – and I have learnt something! In my old job, they were obsessed with acronyms and initialisations. A colleague giving us all a presentation once invented the acronym TWAT for The War Against Terror to see if anyone would actually notice; only two of us did and spent the rest of the presentation with our fists stuffed in our mouth to stop laughing.

  2. Pingback: An Introduction to the ERIC Acronym | ERIC.fm

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