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What's an Initialism? 'UNICEF' vs 'ACLU'

Good morning from my campsite near the Grand Canyon! (After hundreds of miles with nearly no Wifi, I'm at a campsite, in the middle of the desert, with Wifi. haha.) Ok, on to the language nerdiness!

Words are made up of letters, but a group of letters doesn’t necessarily become a word. Think of FBI or HMO or TSA or TGIF—perfectly common expressions that we encounter every day, but no one would call them words. They are commonly called acronyms, but there’s a more specific term that’s used by linguists and people who like being precise about these things: initialism.

Acronyms like 'scuba' ("self-contained underwater breathing apparatus") are pronounceable as words. Initialisms like 'FBI' are not.

The confusion starts when we pronounce the letters of these abbreviations like a word, like NATO. The definition of acronym, “a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term,” means that acronyms can be differentiated from other abbreviations because they are pronounceable as words. Some acronyms are spoken so frequently that we begin to think of them as words, like radar (radio detection and ranging), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), and laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Other common acronyms are ASCII, UNICEF, DARPA, and the governmental terms POTUS, FLOTUS, and SCOTUS.

An initialism is an abbreviation formed from initial letters. Our online dictionary has entries for some 1500 abbreviations that use only capital letters, like ACLU, BBQ, CPR, DIY, POV, PTSD, and YMCA. Acronym is a relatively new word made up of ancient parts. It entered the language around 1940, made from the Greek word akros, meaning “topmost” or “highest,” combined with -onym, from the Greek word onyma (“name” or “word”). In German, the term Akronym had been used since the 1920s.

Initialism is the older term, dating to the mid-1800s.

Click to read the full article.

PS This is not a baby bunny. It is a very long-eared squirrel who hopped up on my table this morning, to see if I'd started breakfast yet. (I haven't. Sorry squirrel!)

Grand Canyon squirrel not a bunny

See, not a bunny.
Grand Canyon Squirrel 2

June 23, 2017



The letters in the word "laser" could be classified as an acronym. The term laser originated as an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation". Your discussion thread brought this to my thoughts; thanks a lot for providing this information! I haven't ever encountered the word "initialisms" previously until now!

Also, I hope you're enjoying your visit near the Grand Canyon; it's really an astonishing place, and I truly would like to visit there someday!


:O I didn't not realize that about laser! Thanks! :D


Neither did I until not long ago! It's a bit interesting to learn about these type of things!


Also 'radar' and 'taser'.


Pah haha!!! Loling on the bunny/squirrel thing!


thank you for bringing me along to the Grand Canyon this morning!


^_^ Glad you are enjoying the trip! I will post Canyon pictures to Twitter later if I can still find wifi. Meanwhile, what did you think of the article? This was the first time I'd encountered the word "initialisms" outside of reference to loan words/signs in American Sign Language.


Can we count FBI as an acronym? Members of other law enforcement branches refer to them as 'Feebies', which sounds too adorable to not be in common use.


I think if the letters were E F B E I, or in the route you've suggested, F E E B E E S or F I B I S (or some similar construction. I've never encountered Feebies before! :D



ACLU I am aware of because I just to work for NCCL



but no one would call them words

I would. -puts sunglasses on-

Governmental terms POTUS, FLOTUS, and SCOTUS.

And SCROTUS as reference to the current president. (So Called Ruler of the United States). /end political slip.

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