by Gina Sestak
I've been thinking about acronyms lately.
"What are acronyms?" you may ask. "Are they words that are acrimonious? Or is that just a fancy word for an abbreviation?"
Well, the answers to these last two questions are, "not necessarily" and, "no," respectively. To answer the first, I turned to my biggest dictionary -- Webster's Third International Dictionary in 3(!) volumes -- and found that an acronym is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term. Clear as mud, right? Perhaps, an example would help: "laser" is an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation."
An abbreviation, on the other hand, is a shortened form of a written word or phrase used for brevity in place of the whole made commonly by omission of letters from one or more parts of the whole. FBI is an abbreviation for Federal Bureau of Investigation. I can't help but suspect, though, that FBI would be an acronym if we could figure out how to pronounce it.
"So, why have you been thinking about these things?" you are probably wondering.
Because . . . they're interesting? No, you folks would never believe it's only that. OK, I'll come clean. A week ago, I participated in a fundraising charity walk for the MS Society. MS, of course, is an abbreviation for Multiple Sclerosis.
When I went to law school many years ago, one of the professors refused to call any female student "Ms." because, he said, the letters "ms" stood for manuscript. It can also stand for Master of Science.
I got to thinking about acronyms and abbreviations because I participated in the charity walk as a member of a team organized by my sister-in-law-in-law (my brother's wife's sister), whose name is Karen. Karen insisted on calling us "Karen's Karing Krew" -- KKK for short. Nobody really wants to walk around Pittsburgh wearing a badge or t-shirt that says "KKK," no matter what you say it stands for. Yikes.
This brings up an important point. We assume that everybody knows what laser means, or FBI, or KKK. But abbreviations can have other meanings. We can't assume readers will understand exactly what we mean unless we make it clear. And so I'll say it here: if anybody ever sees me wearing anything that bears the letters "KKK," you can be sure it stands for Karen's Karing Krew.
What about you? Do you have a favorite acronym or abbreviation? Has one ever caused you great embarassment?