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What is the Difference Between an Acronym, Alphabetism, and Initialism?

NATO is an acronym for North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Radar is an acroynm for Radio Detection And Ranging.
USAF is an initialism for the United States Air Force.
The NAACP is an initialism for The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The word "laser" is an acronym that stands for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.".
Scuba is an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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Acronyms, initialisms, and alphabetisms are all words that are formed by combining initial letters or parts of other words for the sake of brevity. For example, many people prefer to say “amphetamine” rather than “alpha-methyl-phenethylamine,” because the first word is much easier to remember, say, and write. The difference between these three word forms is that acronyms are designed to be pronounced, while initialisms and alphabetisms are created without regard to pronunciation.

An acronym can be made from the initial letters of words in a phrase, as in the case of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or it can be made from parts of words in a phrase, like with RAdio Detection And Ranging (radar). These terms are arranged in such a way that they can be pronounced without needing to spell out the letters. Some other well-known examples include AIDS, Gestapo, scuba, and laser. In some cases, companies design an acronym so that it spells a meaningful word, as in the case of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

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When an initialism is created, it usually cannot be pronounced, forcing people to spell the letters out, as in the case of United States Air Force (USAF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Sometimes, people will adopt shortcuts when spelling these terms out, as in the case of the NAACP, which many people in the United States pronounce as “en double-A cee pee.” Initialisms are also sometimes known as alphabetisms, referencing the idea that people spell out the letters of the alphabet rather than saying a word.

Sometimes, an acronym and an initialism come together in a strange hybrid, as in the case of the JPEG, often pronounced “jay peg,” or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which is usually pronounced “es ef moma.” There is some dispute about what to call these hybrids, since they blend characteristics of both types of abbreviation.

Companies and organizations are usually very careful when they create a new acronym. They generally need to think about whether or not they want to make a pronounceable word, and how people might pronounce the word without any guidance or cues. Most also try to avoid accidentally spelling something unsavory, while some deliberately play with bad language, as in the case of the French Connection United Kingdom, a company with an initialism that results in a spoonerism that closely resembles a curse word.

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anon345953
Post 6

If I mix up an acronym what, is it called. For example Richmond Heavies On Tour (THOR)?

anon333175
Post 5

Some favorites: SNAFU = Situation Normal, All Fouled* Up;

FUBAR = Fouled* Up Beyond All Recognition.

anon333170
Post 4

SPEL = the fictitious "Society for the Preservation of the English Language". It's mildly amusing because the acronym SPEL is a misspelling of the word "spell".

I sometimes use this in my signature line following a rant about the wanton destruction of standard English in speech or writing, such as adding an apostrophe + s to form plurals of common words, as in "Idiot's are everywhere these days."

ginSoul
Post 3

@SushiChamp – You’re right. By the way, there’s an acronym finder online and you won’t believe some of the acronyms they have on there from real organizations.

For example, MEOW is the name of a certain electro-optic weapon. FART is an acronym for several first responder teams and even a group of respiratory therapists. DUMB is the acronym for a college marching band. POOP is an acronym for several software languages and coding problems.

You should try plugging words into the acronym finder site and see what you come up with.

SushiChamp
Post 2

So when I message my friends, I use text acronyms! I bet millions of people are texting acronyms to their friends right now, and they don’t even realize it. Text acronyms must be one of the most widely used acronym types at this time.

everetra
Post 1

Sometimes people invent funny acronyms that have no official purpose other than to get a point across. I remember when the BP oil spill happened some time ago my dad pointed out that other nations had offered their assistance in cleaning up the spill, but that the United States had declined their assistance.

When I asked why, my dad wryly responded “NIH” – which, he explained, stands for “Not Invented Here”.

In other words, if we didn’t invent the technology for cleaning up the spill, we don’t need the help. While I don’t exactly share his cynicism, it is a funny term and I’ve heard it crop up from time to time in different situations.

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