language change and slang linguistics and lexicography Love English

An FYI on acronyms

www.wordle.netLast month I described how technological change has led to many entries being revised in Macmillan Dictionary’s recent update. A particular example of how this change manifests is through acronyms and initialisms.

It’s worth clarifying the difference between these. Acronyms are new words formed from the initial letters (or parts) of a series of words, such as RAM from random access memory, and radar from radio detecting and ranging. Initialisms are a similar sort of abbreviation but are pronounced by saying each letter separately, for example BBC, VHS, and the FYI of this post’s title. The distinction, BTW, is not always strictly observed – initialisms are often loosely called acronyms. This imprecision is rarely problematic, but it’s good to know the difference. HTH.

So how are acronyms and initialisms changing? Take VHS (video home system). I grew up with this format for watching films and TV shows, but even its successor, the DVD, now seems bound for obsolescence. The old entry for VHS called it “a system for recording television programmes at home”; Macmillan Dictionary’s update changed this to “a system used in the past for recording television programmes at home”. Don’t tell me dictionaries can’t induce nostalgia.

Of course, there are new acronyms and initialisms in the dictionary too. A few years ago hardly anyone had heard of MOOC (massive open online course), but it has since become what Kerry Maxwell described as a hot new trend in digital pedagogy. With Google now getting in on the act by launching the online learning platform, the term is going inexorably mainstream. Speaking of whom, the graph in Google Trends shows the suddenness of this acronym’s ascent.

Some new entries, such as API, BYOD, and QR code, explicitly reflect the significant role of technology in altering the lexical and cultural landscape. With the spread of wi-fi, the online–offline divide has become increasingly blurred, so it’s no surprise that some internet-born abbreviations have become more word-like as they’ve spread beyond jargon and slang. ROFL all you like, but people have begun to rofle.

Other newcomers to the dictionary, such as SMIDSY and OH, evoke more traditional concerns IRL, but are popular in social media because many of these technologies (and electronic discourse generally) motivate communicative efficiency. OH is also popular as an abbreviation of “overheard”, for example on Twitter, but either way it’s a useful space-saver. And if you’re lucky, your other-half OH is also your BFF. Because YOLO.

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Stan Carey


  • Hmm, this actually contradicts my understanding, which was that an initialism is technically *any* abbreviation consisting entirely of initial letters, regardless of the pronunciation. This is exactly how the word “acronym” is popularly used, and personally I vote that we go on using “acronym” that way and ditch “initialism”, which is too jargony for most purposes. Calling an abbreviation by a different name depending on how it’s pronounced has honestly never struck me as useful, especially when many can be pronounced either way.

    I have about 25 VHS tapes, but none of them are home recorded.

    Are you sure YOLO isn’t just something dictionary writers put in as a joke? 🙂 Because I’ve only ever seen it in lists of abbreviations supposedly used on social media; I’ve never seen it on social media. Not now on Twitter, not back in Usenet days, not anywhere.

  • Adrian: There is a little variation in how initialism is defined, but almost all dictionaries (at least of the dozen or so I checked) specify pronunciation of the individual letters as a necessary element. Merriam-Webster is a sort of outlier, but its new Unabridged has: “an acronym formed from initial letters; especially: one (such as RPG) that is pronounced as separate letters”. Whether it’s a useful distinction or not is another matter, and you may be right that initialism is often too jargony and that acronym covers them all adequately.
    As for YOLO, it is used in context quite a bit, but I’ve usually only ever seen this when I’ve gone looking for it, as it appears to be mainly a young person’s usage. I don’t think anyone I follow on Twitter, for instance, has ever used it when they weren’t either referring to it or being self-consciously ironic.

  • Keeping both “initialism” and “acronym” seems useful to me, if only so that we can try to distinguish between [a word made up of the initial letters of a phrase or name, which is pronounced by saying one letter at a time] and [a word made up of the initial letters of a phrase or name, which is pronounced as a single word], otherwise it gets tediously long-winded to explain the difference in treatment of “UN” and “Unesco”. But “initialism” and “acronym” will both survive only if sufficient other people agree with me, of course …

    … and my 14-year-old daughter says “Yolo”, but only sarcastically/ironically …

  • Martyn: The popularity of initialism is unlikely ever to approach that of acronym, but I don’t think the word’s survival is in any danger. For what it’s worth, I use both, but I find pronunciation of abbreviations like UN and Unesco tends to be intuitive where it isn’t already well known.
    (I was going to add a note in my last comment that ironic use of YOLO was far from uncommon among children and teenagers, so thanks for the datum on that.)

  • Stan:
    Years ago, my publisher decreed that initialisms, unless they were as well kinown as FBI or CIA, were banned from headlines. That avoided confusion for the poor reader faced with “MCUA adopts budget” (Middlesex County Utilities Authority).

  • Marc: That strikes me as a sensible policy for anything apt to be read by a general audience. I’ve seen texts overrun by severe acronymitis – admittedly in places without editorial oversight and where jargon is par for the course.

  • How I hate them all! acronyms, initialisms, abbreviations, ellipses, etc…..Maybe stemming from my technophobia and my adult children telling me to RDFM

  • Helen: Digital technology may have helped them spread, but many of them predate it by decades, even centuries. I think we’d be lost without them.

  • I think it’s worth commenting that in response to Adrian’s comment above (and having considered the evidence, of course) we changed the definition of VHS again so that it now reads: video home system: a system used in the past for recording and playing video.
    This nimbleness is one of the great benefits of electronic dictionaries, IMO (see what I did there?): a flawed (or at least incomplete) definition that had been in place since the first edition was brought up to date and published relatively quickly and easily.

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