Sunday, March 09, 2008

Word of the Week: acronym

A friend mentioned a conversation he had this week where someone confused acronym with abbreviation. An acronym is a word that’s made up of the initial letter (or letters) of a series of words. My friend’s example of an acronym was scuba, which comes from self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. The example given in my dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.)) is radar, which was created from the words: radio detecting and ranging. Abbreviations, on the other hand, are just a shortened form of a word or phrase. My dictionary gives N.Y. as an example of an abbreviation

I suspect people confuse acronyms and abbreviations because they both start with “a” and because, like acronyms, abbreviations are often created by taking the initial letters of the words they represent. I think the easiest way of thinking about the difference is that acronyms are words that have come into common usage and mean something in the own right, while abbreviations are simply stand-ins for something else.

Mind you, it doesn’t matter that much if people aren’t clear on the difference between the definition of acronym and abbreviation. What does matter, however, is that people often use abbreviations (maybe assuming they’ve become common in their usage) without explaining what the abbreviation refers to. Sure, some abbreviations have become common enough that you don’t have to define them -- like U.S.A., a.m. and p.m. -- but in this age when every organization has its own alphabet soup of terms and initials used to refer to different thing, assuming everyone knows what you’re referring to when you merely give the initials of something is a recipe for confusion.


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