Abbreviations vs. Acronyms vs. Initialisms
Dictionaries don’t all agree on the definitions of these words and neither do style manuals. So I will attempt to shed more light on the distinctions.
According to Dictionary.com, an abbreviation is a shortened or contracted form of a word or phrase, used to represent the whole, as Dr. for Doctor, U.S. for United States, lb. for pound.
Initialisms and acronyms are two types of abbreviations that are used to shorten phrases.
Initialisms are abbreviations that are pronounced one letter at a time.
- BTW (by the way)
Note that most people would simply call these abbreviations, which is fine. Some would call them acronyms, which sticklers would challenge.
Acronyms are abbreviations that are pronounced as words.
- NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
- AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
- OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)
- SPA (Society of Professional Accountants)
- WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant)
- ASAP (as soon as possible)
- Radar (radio detecting and ranging)
- Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)
Do you ever wonder about the origin of a word or when it came to be a common part of the language? According to Ask.com, the word acronym originated in 1943: “As wartime production of names using initials reached an all-time high, it was high time to give a name to the growing arsenal of alphabetic abbreviations. That need was met in a note in the February 1943 issue of American Notes and Queries: ‘Your correspondent who asks about words made up of the initial letters or syllables of other words may be interested in knowing that I have seen such words called by the name acronym, which is useful, and clear to anyone who knows a little Greek.’ ”
“Greek? Yes, acronym follows the model of other designations for types of words, like synonym, antonym, and homonym. The -nym means “a kind of word”; acro- means “top, peak, or initial,” as in acrobat or acrophobia.
Posted on Monday, March 17th, 2008, at 10:06 pm