The Real Meanings Behind “IQ,” “P.S.,” and Other Everyday Acronyms

Tuesday, January 244 min read

Some abbreviations are used more often than the words or phrases they actually stand for — such as “BBQ” (barbecue) and “ER” (emergency room). Similarly, some acronyms are so ubiquitous that their full-length counterparts are almost unknown — what does “USB” stand for, for example? Let’s get to the bottom of these commonplace abbreviations.

IQ: Intelligence Quotient

IQ is the measure of a person’s reasoning ability. It has been used as an abbreviation for “intelligence quotient” since the 1920s, although French psychologist Alfred Binet developed the first recognized IQ test, called the Binet-Simon Scale, in 1904. Because of its obvious association with intelligence, IQ has become a way to describe how smart a person is (via a score on IQ tests) — but this implication isn’t entirely accurate. An IQ test cannot determine if a person is smart or not — these tests only determine a person’s reasoning ability through problem-solving tests and compare it to the average for their age.

USB: Universal Serial Bus

In a technology-dependent world, we’d be lost without the “universal serial bus,” better known as the “USB.” Invented in 1996, USB is a “a standardized technology for attaching peripheral devices to a computer.” In layman’s terms, USB ports allow USB devices to plug into them. The hole on the side of a computer or a charging block is the “USB port,” and “thumb drives” that can store files and data are called “USB drives.” These ports in computers, televisions, game consoles, etc., connect with USB chargers, cameras, printers, and many other devices. But why is it called a “bus”? In the computing lexicon, a “bus” is “a distinct set of conductors carrying data and control signals within a computer system, to which pieces of equipment may be connected in parallel.”

A.M. and P.M.: Ante Meridiem and Post Meridiem

If someone were to say, “The meeting begins at 9 ante meridiem sharp,”  there might be quite a few empty chairs in that 9 a.m. meeting, because people don’t often use the full Latin phrases to describe the time of day. The abbreviations “a.m.” and “p.m.” come from the Latin phrases for “before noon” and “after noon,” respectively. With this logic, both 12 a.m. and 12 p.m. could technically be called the same thing, so we designate them as “noon” and “midnight” instead.

Laser: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

Have you ever played with a “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” pointer? Maybe you’re more familiar with “laser” pointers. It’s no wonder this wordy phrase was abbreviated. Engineer and physicist Theodore Maiman invented the first working laser in 1960 at Hughes Research Laboratory in California, and the catchy abbreviation was immediately adopted.

P.S.: Post Scriptum

To add an additional remark at the end of a letter, the universal abbreviation is “P.S.,” short for the Latin phrase post scriptum, which literally means “written after.” It’s been used in English since the 17th century to add an extra note to everything from personal love letters to movie titles (Remember “P.S. I Love You”?).

RSVP: Répondez S'il Vous Plaît

Parlez-vous français? Even if you don’t, you’ve likely used this French loanword. “RSVP” is originally a French acronym that translates to, “respond if you please.” In English, it’s used all the time as a verb related to party invitations, as in, “‘Did you RSVP to her wedding yet?’ ‘Yes, I RSVP’d right away!’”

While Americans and Brits use this abbreviation daily, using it in France today would be a faux pas. They’ve moved on from the dated “RSVP” and now use the phrase réponse souhaitée, which translates literally as “response desired.”

ZIP Code: Zone Improvement Plan Code

Invented in the 1960s, ZIP codes were introduced to improve the speed of mail delivery by the U.S. Postal Service. Short for “zone improvement plan,” ZIP codes are a group of five or nine numbers that designate a certain mailing area. According to the Postal Service’s 1963 statement, each number has a very specific meaning:

  • First: Identifies one of 10 large areas in the U.S.
  • Second: Indicates a state.
  • Third: Identifies a major destination within a state (such as a large city).
  • Fourth and fifth: Indicate either a postal delivery unit or a specific post office.

The newer “ZIP+4” nine-digit code helps narrow down delivery within a ZIP code, such as to a specific apartment building, a city block, or perhaps an office building.

Scuba: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

French explorer Jacques Cousteau teamed up with engineer Émile Gagnan in 1943 to develop the first Aqua-Lung, a fully automatic device with compressed air for diving. Today, we call this device a “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus,” or “scuba.” The acronym “scuba” has been around since the 1950s, but the word is so widely known that “scuba” is no longer written in all capital letters, and the acronym is now written as a regular word.

GIF: Graphic Interchange Format

Where would digital communication be without GIFs? Now a permanent fixture of social media and online messaging, GIFs are small images or looped videos that can express what we’re feeling better than we ever could with words. By definition, a GIF is a “a lossless format for image files that supports both animated and static images,” aka a fun way to communicate with friends, family, and co-workers — whether it’s a clip from a favorite television show, a cute animal, or a political blunder. This acronym has been around since the ’80s, but “GIF” is so mainstream that the Oxford American Dictionary chose it as their Word of the Year in 2012, citing its transformation from a pop culture trend to a real tool for journalism. Still up for debate: whether the acronym is pronounced “jiff” or “giff.”

Featured image credit: PeopleImages/ iStock

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