Acronyms probably aren’t what you think they are.

Acronyms probably aren’t what you think they are. Let’s start with some true acronyms:

SCUBA, NATO, NAFTA, AWOL, SWAT

Now here’s a list of what you thought were acronyms:

IBM, CPU, EU, CNN, FBI

Can you spot the difference?

True acronyms are words formed from initials but pronounced as a separate word. We don’t spell out the letters in ‘SCUBA’ when we say it. It’s ‘skooba’ or /’skuːbə/ for you phonetic geeks.

‘FBI’, however, is spoken as individual letters. So are most words mistakenly called acronyms. These are actually known as initialisms. Who knew.

BUT WAIT!

initialism (n)

  1. a set of initials representing a name, organization, or the like, with each letter pronounced separately, as FBI.
  2. a name or term formed from the initial letters of a group of words and pronounced as a separate word, as NATO; an acronym.

acronym (n)

  1. a word formed from the initial letters or groups of letters of words in a set phrase or series of words and pronounced as a separate word, as NATO.
  2. a set of initials representing a name, organization, or the like, with each letter pronounced separately, as FBI; an initialism.

What the hell’s going on here? Acronyms are initialisms, initialisms are acronyms, Einhorn is Finkel, Soylent Green is people. Madness. What does this it all mean? The good news is that I think it means you aren’t as dumb as you look. You haven’t been using acronym wrong, at least not colloquially, but if you’re splitting hairs (and I don’t think you’d be reading this if you weren’t), then it’s good to know there’s a level of technicality and nuance to these terms that you probably didn’t know existed.