OK, I’m about to launch into a rave. Go hide somewhere, read elsewhere for a moment. But I am thoroughly sick of this acronym abuse. No, I’m not sick of abbreviations – I love ‘em. What I am sick of is people indiscriminantly slapping ‘acronym’ on every abbreviation they come across. They are committing the heinous crime of using ‘acronym’ as though it simply meant abbreviation. What are they thinking? Haven’t they wondered why the word ‘abbreviation’ exists? Do they think it’s a spare, to be used only when acronym is broken? Do they never visit a dictionary?
So I’m bitter about this. Yes, yes, English is an ever-changing language. I accept that. Actually, I do and I don’t. I’d accept it if it made good sense or any sense, but I don’t believe that it does. Indeed if the true definition of ‘acronym’ gets lost to us, such that it simply replaces abbreviation (being shorter I guess it has that one advantage) then what do we use when we want to describe an abbreviation – sorry, a new-style acronym – that forms a pronounceable word (as against a new-style acronym that is made up of discretely pronounced initials)? Ahh-ha, so now we need a new word to replace the old word ‘acronym’. Great. I don’t see a rush of suggestions on this one, so I suspect you are all thinking ‘why bother’ or ‘how often do we need to distinguish between initials and sounded-out words anyway?’.
Not very often is the answer, of course. But when we do, it matters. Consider this situation. You want to buy some IBM shares but are not wordly-wise. You wonder, is it an old style set of initials pronounced as ‘eye-bee-emm’ or an old style acronym pronounced as ‘ib-emm’. Well obviously it’s a set of initials. It’s not pronounced as a word so it’s emphatically not an acronym. Now if you replace IBM with QANTAS you get a very different answer. It’s an abbreviation like IBM is an abbreviation, yes, and they are initials, yes, but you’d look foolish pronouncing every letter individually. Which is why it’s pronounced as a word, mate, and is what we used to call an ‘acronym’!
Which brings me to the irony that is ‘TLA’. It’s a set of initials and is usually represented as an abbreviation of ‘three letter acronym’. Ironically of course it’s not an acronym itself, but its proliferation has spread the confusion. Perhaps it all started as a three letter abbreviation and morphed over time, but I cringe when I read or hear it. Beware, I think – illiteracy approaching.
In recent years we have so thoroughly abused and confused acronym with any abbreviation that the distinction is lost on many, or indeed most, English-speaking people. Thus we can only guess how to pronounce new abbreviations. We must take a punt that since it looks like it could be pronounced as a word maybe it is. We can no longer say with any certainty ‘that’s an acronym, my friend’; rather we have to suffer eternal embarrasment as we try out various ways to pronounce the weird conglomerations of consonents and vowels that flourish in our ever-vibrant language.
Let’s restore our language and defend the acronym.