Acronyms

We prefer the easy life – no denying that! And in terms of speaking, there is no exception. When pronouncing words, we prefer to go the easy way as well, so want to sounds like wanna and handbag sounds like hambag. The same preference for simplicity is behind abbreviations. I mean, who wants to get their tongue twisted by Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or deoxyribonucleic when we can get away quickly with AIDS and DNA.

So, did you know there are three main types of abbreviations: Advert is a shortened word; AIDS is an acronym; and DNA is an initialism?

Shortened words have become so common that in most situations, the full form sounds just positively wrong! I mean, we casually use the word zoo, as zoological garden is a mouth full. We say fax without thinking facsimile, pants without worrying about pantaloons, and scrum totally unconcerned about scrummage. How often do we talk about taking the omnibus or cabriolet to get from point A to point B? Context is king with shortened words, however, or sub could lead to confusion between submarines, subordinates, subscriptions, or substitutes.

Type 2, the acronym, is a pronounceable word formed from the initial letters of an abbreviation. So, for example, in the international arena, we have NATO and UNESCO and NASA and WHO. Many acronyms have becomes so regularly used that we forget their origins. When’s the last time someone strapped on self-contained underwater breathing apparatus to go diving? Or flashed a light amplification by stimulated emission or radiation?

An initialism is an abbreviation where each of the names of the individual letters is pronounced. Frequently applied to government agencies (CIA, FBI, KGB) and technical terms (HTML), initialisms were originally written with full stops after each letter (so the cold war was fought between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.). But nowadays, the capital letters are sufficient in and of themselves – we eat BLTs and crank up the AC to cool off, we can read FAQs about UFOs, and FYI, TGIF! And the fact that Kentucky Fried Chicken has officially changed its name to KFC and British Petroleum to BP suggests either a general social acceptance of initialisms – or, as I said before, that we just prefer the easy life!

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