Understanding acronyms

But LOL is a bit of a mystery

A news columnist, Reg Henry, recently assailed what he called “the attack of the killer acronyms,” which, he said, are “serving where honest words were once employed.”

He made note of ones like “MRE” (meals, ready to eat), “LOL” (laughing out loud), and “STEM” (the educational mandate to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

If you want to be technical about it, only one of those is truly an acronym.

Strictly speaking, an “acronym” is a pronounceable word formed from the first letter of each or most of the words in the expression being shortened. “STEM” the acronym is pronounced the same as “stem” the word. “MRE,” by contrast, is pronounced as the individual letters that make it up, as in “em-are-ee.”

“LOL” falls into the hybrid category. Sometimes it’s a pronounced acronym (as in LOLcats), and sometimes it’s an initialism (“ell-oh-ell”). (The Oxford English Dictionary, which includes “LOL,” calls for the pronunciation of “loll.”) Another example of that hybrid is “AARP”: Formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, it sometimes calls itself “aay-aay-are-pee,” and it sometimes calls itself “arp.” That last sounds like a puppy’s yap, but whatever.

Initialisms and acronyms are types of abbreviations, though a true abbreviation is just a shortening of a word to its opening few letters, like “Dec.” for “December” or “Corp.” for “Corporation.”

Whether all the letters in an acronym are capitalized and whether periods go between the letters in an initialism is a matter of style. Some guides allow all-capped acronyms no matter their length, like “UNESCO,” while others call for all-caps only for acronyms of four or fewer letters, allowing “NATO” and “Unicef.” The key in all of those treatments is the signal that it is a shortened form, by using at least an initial capital letter.

Some acronyms make their way into English, going all lower-case, like “scuba” (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), first used as a word in 1957, according to the OED; “radar” (radio detecting and ranging), first use as a word (in The New York Times) in 1941; “laser” (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), first used in 1960, again in The Times; and “snafu” (situation normal, all fouled up, though another “f” word is usually used in the place of “fouled”), which traces, of course, to the military, also in 1941.

Then there are the abbreviations that take parts of the words in the expression and make a whole new word, like “motel” for “motor hotel,” or “smog” for “smoke” and “fog.” Those are called “portmanteaus,” named for the large suitcases that opened into two parts. In this case, the two parts close to make a new word.

While Henry recognized the distinction between acronyms and initialisms, he said: “In regards to this careful distinction, I have decided to go AWOL and treat all acronyms, however arrayed, as the common enemy of words. So there.”

If not the enemy of words, too many shortening of words in whatever form should be avoided as the common enemy of clear communications. So there.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.