October 7, 2005

This was originally a response to a post on Adam Jury’s livejournal, but I’m desperate to put something up, so here it is.

If “divid” catches on, that’s when it’s not an initialism anymore and becomes a kind of acronym. Until then, it’ll continue to be an initialism, because all of the letters are pronounced as the letters they are rather than the sounds they represent. Because “DVD” contains no vowels and “DIVID” is not a recognized abbreviation, “divid” isn’t strictly an acronym either, because it’s not pronounceable as a word as spelled without the addition of vowel sounds to facilitate speech. (When you get that strict, though, you lose me; I don’t know what it is if it’s not an initialism like DVD, an acronym like RADAR or a straight-up word.)

Part of the distinction comes from simple practice, which is fickle and wholly descriptive. For example, “LED” could be an acronym, but it’s an initialism. We say el-ee-dee (initialism) rather than led (acronym). It’s a matter of practice and preference rather than properness, though I’d be curious to read theories as to why we, as a people, went with the initialism. My theory: It’s pleasant to say and hear el-ee-dee.

Meanwhile, scuba is a word because you say “skoobah” rather than “esseeyoobeeaye” and do not need to capitalize it to be proper. It is still an acronym because it is an abbreviation formed from initial letters, but it is a word because:

a. an acronym is a kind of word that is also an abbreviation, whereas an initialism is a kind of abbreviation that is not a word

b. it has consonants and vowels and can be pronounced as a word, rather than as a collection of letters alone

However, scuba is in that weird transitional stage between an acronym and an anacronym, which is a word that was once an acronym but whose origins as an acronym are lost to the common speaker. (That is: anachronism + acronym)

Laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and modem (modulate/demodulate) are words that were acronyms or abbreviations, respectively, and are now, for most modern speakers, anacronyms because their status as transmogrified abbreviations has been forgotten.

I do so love words.



  1. I didn’t know about “modem”. One that I dig is “tron” which was a DOS or BASIC command. It’s companion command was “troff”. Turn On and Turn Off. Seldom used, though fondly remembered. Glad they never made a “troff” movie. What a lovable character Troff would be. Maybe he’ll be in Shrek 4…

  2. hey, work finally changed the one thing that they didn’t acronym to death. it’s now the associate satisfaction index, or the ASI, instead of the previous incarnation: associate satisfaction survey. (;

  3. So is “radar”. It was originally R.A.D.A.R. for RAdio Direction And Ranging but has been written as “radar” for quite a while now, like “sonar” for “SOund Navigation And Ranging”.

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