Acronyms vs Initialisms

Acronym vs Initialism – The “acronyms must be pronounceable” position is coming up more often recently. What purpose does it serve?

While the term “inititialism” is more precise than “acronym”, it is rarely used in practice. Check out this Ngram chart to see a visualization of the use of the terms acronym vs initialism in books from 1940 to 2008: Initialism is almost never used compared to acronym.

There seems to be a recent push to position initialism as the only correct term to describe words like DDT, FBI and CIA. However, since it was first coined in the early 1940’s acronym has been used to describe any word, pronounceable or not, made up of the first letters of other words.

For example, here’s an article from 1947 describing DDT, PT, JP and OK as acronyms: That’s not a formal scholarly reference but it demonstrates the usage and understanding at the time.

Finally, the New York Times found the earliest use of the word acronym in 1940. It was for PGN spelled as Pee-gee-enn The first known use of the word acronym referred to a word that revisionists would call an initialism.

Why would a reader or listener need to be told that FBI is an initialism rather than an acronym? The difference is usually clear by looking at the word. On the other hand, the word initialism is used so rarely that it’s more likely to confuse the reader.

Let’s give our readers a break and drop the term initialism. In regular usage the single term acronym is used interchangeably to describe both types of abbreviation and helps keep writing simple and clear.

More examples here:


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