Which Word Wednesday: Acronym vs. Initialism

By February 1, 2012 language No Comments

Long before prescriptivists were lamenting the onset of mobile phone text-speak, there were abbreviations like laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) and USA (United States of America).

Abbreviations come in two flavors: acronyms and initialisms. This week’s Which Word Wednesday looks at the difference between the two. Here are the definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

acronym :: noun
a word formed from the initial letters of other words (e.g., radar, laser)

initialism :: noun
an abbreviation consisting of initial letters pronounced separately (e.g., CPU)

Although both nouns refer to abbreviations, according to Mignon Fogarty’s The Grammar Devotional, “acronyms are special kinds of abbreviations that can be pronounced as words, such as OPEC (‘oh-peck’ for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries).”1 Laser and scuba would also be examples of acronyms.

Fogarty explains that initialisms are “often confused with acronyms because they’re made up of letters, so they look similar, but they can’t be pronounced as words. FBI and CIA are examples.”1

USA is another example of an initialism.

How can we tell the difference? I’m thinking of initials when I think of initialisms. My initials are EMS, and I pronounce each letter separately rather than pronouncing my initials as a word (“ems”).

What’s my WWW verdict? If you can pronounce the abbreviation as a word, it’s an acronym; if you can’t, it’s an initialism.

What’s your verdict? Do you know your acronyms from your initialisms? How do tell one from the other? Do you have a favorite abbreviation? Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mignon Fogarty, The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 182.

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