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A plague of initials

There are always initials in the news, but it seems of late that we are suffering from a veritable plague of them (to borrow IMF, FIFA, BBC, NATO, PBS, and the NCAA.

Most people probably don’t think too much about such abbreviations. If they do, it will be to classify them as different in some way from other words and to place them in the storage area of the brain that deals with acronyms.Which is strange, since most of them are not acronyms at all – they are initialisms.

The difference between an acronym and an initialism may be very slight – the former is an abbreviation that is pronounced as a word (FIFA and NATO), and the latter is an abbreviation that has each letter in it pronounced (BBC, PBS) – but try switching the way that you treat them and that difference quickly becomes apparent. If you were to say ‘I’m going to watch a news show about the IMF on PBS’ and pronounced those two words as acronyms you would sound rather like a drunk with a mouth full of marbles.

Both acronyms and initialisms are a growing part of the language, with almost all examples of both having been coined since the beginning of the twentieth century (RIP, or rest in peace, is one of the rare examples of an acronym that is hundreds of years old). Since it is unlikely that they will go away anytime soon, you might as well learn the difference between them, so that you can properly distinguish EOKA from EOC, and fubar from FYI.

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