Monday, April 26, 2010


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.
Unless it is followed by a period, in which case it isn't really an abbreviation for anything, but we pronounce it "miz."

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?


Annette said...

Abbreviations have become big business of sorts in emails and text messages. LOL. LMAO. ROTFLMAO.
TTFN. Beyond those, I have to stop and think way too hard to figure out what they're trying to say. Even TTFN had me stumped for a long time. Thankfully, I have a friend with teenage kids who translate for me.
TTFN (Ta ta for now)

Pat Remick said...

I still can't get over that TASER came from Tom Swift And his Electric Rifle.

Joyce said...

My very, very favorite is FUBAR. It describes SO many things.

Annette said...

Ah! Joyce, that reminds me of my favorite: snafu!

Joyce said...

Yes, snafu would have to be my second favorite.

I think I see a trend here...

Wilfred Bereswill said...

My profession, Environmental Law has many, many acronyms. My favorite, SARA (Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act). I remember teaching a class many years ago and I had SARA on the screen. A guy that worked at Sesame Place (Theme Park in North Philly) stopped me and asked, "Who's this Sara bitch and why doesn't she spell her name with an "H"?"

Since then I'm careful in my use of acronyms.

ramona said...

Thank you for the chuckle, Gina. I don't usually laugh at KKK, but today I did.

I like WAW (Writer At Work). Although, sadly, sometimes FUBAR applies there, too.

Kathy said...

I love the way your mind works! I always liked Lee Iacocca's comment. Having been fired from Ford and rising to the top at Chrysler he said he didn't know why he ever even worked at Ford. "My name", he said "spells I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation of America."

Gina said...

I've always had a fondness for the acronym POSSLQs, which is pronounced "POSS-lee-kews". It came up a few times when I was still practicing domestic relations law as a term for unmarried cohabitants - "Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters."

Patg said...

Well, I don't know about acronyms or abbreviations, I've spent my life in codes for things.


A single leg of my itinerary, British Airways flight number 554 in a restricted and discounted fare from Kennedy Airport in New York to London's Heathrow Airport is holding confirmed for one person and leaves at 10PM and arrive the following day at 610AM.
By the way, Ramona, WAW is Warsaw Poland.

Jennie Bentley said...

LOL, Pat. I could read that too, believe it or not. Spent a year or two working for Scandinavian Airlines once. At JFK, as it happens. I still see three letter abbreviations as airport codes.

Gina said...

Pat -
Have a great trip. I'll cross my fingers that no more volcanos start erupting while you're coming into England. [Speaking of which, has anybody else noticed how neatly laid out those English fields look from the air?]

Patg said...

Arghhhh! Gina,
That line of code was wishful thinking. Not going. Boo Hoo.
And it should have read from PDX, but I wanted to use a city that had multiple codes.
JFK Kennedy
EWR Newark
LGA LaGuardia.
NYC is a code for the city, but no longer used because we telex is archaic in the airline industry.

Jennie, do you remember some of the joke stuff that lettered airlines stood for?


M Pax said...

Yup, probably the only time I've laughed at KKK.

I use 'subs' a lot lately when talking with writers. There's a whole lingo there, huh?

There another for weight loss circles. Some of it I'm still trying to decipher.

djapollo2k said...

ROFIFOL!!! Use of acronyms for internet communications is acceptable to me. I text with my grandson and I've learned to convey information swiftly. Unfortunately I don't think he is learning to use standard English. idk.

I really hate use of acronyms in politics and professional areas. Creates confusion and often turns into some silly insider speak.