linguistics and lexicography Love English

TL;DR: Abbreviations FTW

Abbreviations are an important feature of English, and they take various forms. They may be shortened titles (Ms, Mx, Dr, Capt.); clippings of longer words (influenza flu, disrespect dis(s), family fam); initials of foreign phrases, which themselves may be unfamiliar (e.g. ‘exempli gratia’, amante meridiem’ – see the Word story at each entry); and acronyms and initialisms.

Acronyms are spoken as one word, like AWOL and WASP, while initialisms are spoken as distinct letters, like rpm and VIP. This difference is not widely known, though, so acronym can be applied broadly to both types, and I do so here. In formal use, acronyms usually appear in all capital letters. Some publishers put them in title case (Unesco, Nasa), but this is relatively uncommon, and is resisted in some quarters. Laser, sonar, and scuba were fully lowercase almost from the start, and people may be surprised to learn they’re acronyms at all.

Traditionally, full stops were typically used between the letters of acronyms (B.B.C., R.S.V.P., U.S.A.), but this style is waning. The stops are more likely in lowercase abbreviations (i.e., p.m.), but even here they are often omitted. In casual use, like text messaging and social media, capitalisation and punctuation are treated more loosely. So you often see initialisms in lower case, especially if they’re not official names: afaik, tl;dr, wtf.

Abbreviations are abundant among the new entries in Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary. Some are political (DHS, GOTV, IC), others come from business and finance (dba, MVP, PAYF, PCP), some are technological (CRUD, EFB, ML), and many are social or cultural (idr, IME, omw, OOO, PoC, syl, WFH). They can reflect broader changes in society.

Efficiency is intrinsic to communication, and can drive language change. Set phrases that are used repeatedly are commonly abbreviated, as they save people time and effort. In digital communication, abbreviations may also serve as tribal markers – tfw users are in the know about internet lingo. Ikr. Sometimes, as in the case of lol, abbreviations may even undergo grammatical transformation.

New abbreviations emerge constantly, and we don’t always know what they mean. Does SMH stand for ‘stop me here’ or ‘shaking my head’? Does FTW mean ‘for the win’ or ‘forgot the word’? ICYMI, among Macmillan Dictionary’s set of language quizzes there is one on modern abbreviations – see if your knowledge is up to speed.

BTW, lest you despair that kids these days are ruining the language with all these cryptic terms, keep in mind that abbreviations like this are normally used appropriately, among people familiar with them, and that they’re often older than you think: OMG was used in a letter to Winston Churchill 100 years ago. TTYL.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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