Is That an Acronym or an Initialism?

2 min read

Sometimes shorter is better. Enter abbreviations: condensed forms of phrases that often supersede the original meaning altogether.

"RSVP" is commonly found on invitations of all types as a request for people to let you know if they’re attending or sending their regrets. The clue to the purpose of this request is in the translation. "RSVP" is an abbreviation of four French words: répondez s'il vous plaît, which simply means “please reply.” We all know what "RSVP" is asking, even if we aren’t Francophones. That’s the power of abbreviations.

With the rise of texting, abbreviations may seem like a modern invention, but history reveals examples going back thousands of years. The earliest Christians often used the abbreviation "INRI" on crucifixes. It stands for Iesvs, Jesus; Nazarenvs, Nazarene; Rex, King; and Ivdæorvm, of the Jews.

Since they've been around for so long, there are different types of abbreviations. Let’s talk about the differences between acronyms, initialisms, and truncations, and when to use them.

Acronyms

An acronym is a word formed from the letters of the words it represents — usually the first letter of each word, but sometimes syllables or other random parts of a word. These letters are also pronounced as a word. For example, "NASA" is pronounced as a word — “NAH-suh” — and stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Other easily recognizable acronyms include YOLO and POTUS, to name just a few.

The popularity of acronyms has also led to the rise of “backronyms,” when a meaning is applied to each letter after the acronym has already been established. You may have heard that "adidas" stands for “All Day I Dream About Sports,” for example (it doesn’t). "Bae" — a term of endearment — is another modern backronym that supposedly means “before anyone else,” but that’s just an internet myth.

Initialisms

Sometimes the word "acronym" is applied incorrectly to what is actually an initialism. Like an acronym, an initialism is formed by the first letter of the words it represents. The difference, however, is all in how you say it. Initialisms are when you speak each letter separately — as in, CDC, USA, HTML, or BTW.

A rare few words are pronounced both ways — "ASAP" (take your pick between “EH-sap” and “A-S-A-P”) is a prime example.

Truncation

Another type of abbreviation often mistaken for an acronym is a truncation, which is just a short, commonly understood version of a longer word — think "Thurs" for "Thursday" or "dept" for "department." This is one place where modern language has had a strong impact, as many longer words have been overtaken by their truncated forms, such as "sitch" for "situation" or "app" for "application."

You’ll find abbreviations all over the place in English — from baking and addresses to job titles and maps, and, of course, social media. Try testing yourself the next time you spot a short form of a word: Is it an acronym, initialism, or truncation?

Photo credit: Surendran MP/ Unsplash

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