Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

A Closer Look at ACRONYMS


Mon, Jan 3, 2024

Re: FBI report on UFO sighting FAQs


Pls write the memo we discussed and email it to the team ASAP (make sure you bcc the CEO and cc our lawyers Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe) and ask them to RSVP for the 10 AM mtg at NY HQ on Thu, Aug 9th. 



P.S.* Make sure you put BA, MA, PhD, etc. after your name on your new CV and go by the ATM, use my PIN, and withdraw a C-note on your way to the lab.

We use written abbreviations to make words shorter while retaining their meanings

Abbr. are clearly understood to be versions of the full words. Some are so common that we use them more often than the full word when writing. Jan, Feb, Mar, Mon, Tue, Wed, Sr. and Jr., St. and Ave. How about mph, oz, gal, and mm?

When you tell people you’re nauseous, you’re actually telling them you’re the kind of person who makes others want to vomit.

We see lots of abbreviations in text messages

Because smartphone users want to type as little as possible on those little Barbie keyboards, they abbreviate a lot of words and phrases. Many years ago, when BlackBerrys** (sic) were small portable communication devices with tiny keyboards, people typed away with their thumbs, an activity that our research team described as chipmunking.

Today something as simple as putting a period at the end of a sentence has become a texting dinosaur because the period symbol is on a different page than the letters and too much trouble to bother with. Most adults don’t care about keeping up with the endless stream of new abbreviations pumped out by wireheads, geeks, and Valley Girls.


Linguists use the delightfully onomatopoeic term clipping to describe removing some segments of an existing word to create a short, simple synonym. When abbreviations eliminate syllables at the beginning of a word (telephone, hamburger, robot), the word for this is foreclipping. Its obvious opposite is backclipping, which is eliminating syllables from the end of words (chimpanzee, professor, examination). Three examples of middle clipping (abbreviations that drop letters at the front AND back) are prescription, headshrinker, and influenza. All clipped words are understood to mean the same thing as the full word.  


We say acronyms as a single word and not an out-loud spelling of the individual letters. Are you familiar with The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund? How about UNICEF, pronounced just as it looks? Scuba divers know Jacques Cousteau invented a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. More of us know NASA than know the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Many things that we think are acronyms are not

They’re actually backronyms, words and phrases made up after the fact to fit an existing acronym. Students of the English language tell us acronyms are likeliest to be created when the real explanations are long gone.  

SOS means Save Our Ships, right?

No it doesn’t. It has to do with transmitting messages by telegraph in Morse Code, the system of communicating by using dots and dashes to represent letters. When mariners were searching for ways to announce their ship was in trouble, they wanted a distress call that could be understood by everyone and not confused with anything else. Smithsonian tells us that in 1906, the first International Radio Telegraph Convention declared “Ship in distress shall use the following signal: dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot. No mention was made of alphabetic equivalents, but because dot dot dot was the code for the letter S and dash dash dash was the code for the letter O, it’s easy to see how people drew the conclusion that the danger signal acronym was S-O-S. If you’d like to hear 8 seconds of distress signal transmitted by Morse Code, click here.

S.O.S. is an initialism

Also called alphabetisms, initialisms are acronyms that we spell out letter-by-letter when speaking. If IRS, IBM. USA, AKA, MP3, and GPA were acronyms, we’d be saying ers, ibbim, oosa, acka, mip3, and gippa.  Hybrid initialisms are hard to find. Two at the intersection of tech and media include CD-ROM and JPEG. They combine spelling out the letters (CD, J) with pronouncing the final syllables (rom and peg).

I used to think posh meant Port Out, Starboard Home

It was many years before I learned that posh is an excellent example of a backronym. Wi-Fi stands for Wireless Fidelity, just as Hi-Fi means High Fidelity, right? Nope. It began as an arcane technical term used by engineers. And no matter how members of your group believe that rap is a backronym of Rhythm And Poetry, rap really comes from the word rapping, a verb hippies used in the ‘60s to mean having open, honest, and unstructured discussions. “Hey, man, we’re having a rap session in the Rath tonight.”

What is an apronym? 

It’s a special acronym that aligns with the message. Here are three examples of apronyms: Mothers Against Drunk Drivers are MADD, people with Seasonal Attitude Disorder are SAD. and when I owe you money, I give you my promise of payment, my IOU. When writing an apronym, don’t forget to capitalize each letter and treat it like any other word.


On TV and in films involving doctors and hospitals, we’re accustomed to hearing someone add stat! to instructions or commands to emphasize the need for urgency. The individual letters don’t mean anything in English because stat is abbreviated from the Latin word statim meaning “instantly, immediately.” 

When we hear sports fans say stats, they mean statistics such as baseball’s ERA (earned run average) and RBI (runs batted in); basketball’s PPM (points per minute) and TO (turnovers), and football’s QB throwing a pass that is intercepted by a DB (defensive back) and returned for a TD (touchdown), after which a place kicker attempts a PAT (Point After Touchdown).

Cabals are secret societies that conspire to overturn governments

They’re often led by madmen who dream of becoming dictators with absolute power over everyone and everything. Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories believe a cabal of elites is working in secret to control the world. This mortal enemy theme was very popular in 007 films (SMERSH, SPECTRE) and television shows The Man From U.N.C.L.E (THRUSH), and Get Smart (KAOS).

Real-life military cabals have fomented revolutions in the Mideast, Indochina, Central and South America. Remember the Nazis from 100 years ago? They were led by a man who convinced millions of Germans that a Jewish cabal was plotting to destroy the human race. It was General George S. Patton who called Hitler “that paper-hanging son of a bitch,”

Is cabal an acronym or a backronym?

The word cabal was formed from the first letters of five of King Charles II’s ministers’ surnames: Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale, who collectively aligned themselves with England’s hated enemy, France. If those five treacherous ministers had been listed alphabetically, the “acronym” for secretly plotting against the king would have been AABCL, or abba-cul, I guess. Another problem with this backronym is that cabal meant “groups of scheming conspirators” 25 years before Chuck the Deuce had those problems with his traitorous cabinet members.

Department of Redundancy Department

Two of my favorite banking terms are ATM and PIN. We say A-T-M letter-by-letter, but we don’t spell out P-I-N, we say the word pin, which in Tennessee means ballpoint.

What makes ATM and PIN different is that many people don’t stop with saying A-T-M but superfluously call it an A-T-M machine. Ditto for “pin number,” which means you use your Personal Identification Number Number (PINN) at the Automatic Teller Machine Machine (ATMM).

The term that encompasses these words and others like them is the Redundant Acronym Syndrome

Some find it amusing to refer to it as RAS syndrome, which is RASS. It describes situations where people take a word or two from the abbreviated form of an acronym and add it on the back. The actual term for such behavior is pleonasm, from the Greek word meaning “to be in excess” by using more words than needed. It has come to mean words that are repetitive, clichéd, and absolutely useless.

Some common pleonasms

Frozen tundra, Sahara Desert, cash money, free gift, true fact, false pretenses, and the whiskered and worn-out “déjà vu all over again.” Does anyone know why Americans say tuna fish but not Irish Setter dog or alligator reptile?

The purpose of all this is not for readers to try and learn all these terms that experts use

What is more valuable for all of us is to take a closer look at the hundreds of ways we use and abuse our language so we can be alert to them in our speech and writing.

One of my favorite books is William Strunk’s** The Elements of Style

Here in a single paragraph is the essence of Strunk’s philosophy on writing: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

If that last bit makes you wonder ”tell what?,” it’s how writers in Strunk’s day described ‘making every word count.’”

Jeep isn’t short for anything

The original jeeps used in WWII were called General Purpose vehicles and GIs spoke the first letters of those two words out loud: Gee Pee. It didn’t take long for Gee Pee to turn into geep-e, and finally, jeep.

Kid’s Corner

Caconyms are silly made-up names considered undesirable by the hoi polloi. What kids don’t know Seymour Butts, Ben Dover, and Ivana Tinkle?


Retronym is a term that indicates how advances in technology can sometimes create a need for clarification. No one said acoustic guitar before Les Paul came along with his solid-bodied electric guitar. All mail was just mail until email came along, and now USPS mail is called snail mail.

*   *   *

*The acronym P.S. stands for post scriptum, meaning “after writing.” It’s either that or part of a Beatles song, PS: I Love You.

** Nausea is a symptom, not a disease. When you are nauseated, you feel like you are about to vomit. When you tell people you’re nauseous, you’re actually saying you’re the kind of person who makes others want to vomit. Don’t worry you’ll be revealed, because only a handful of people know the difference in meanings between the two.“Do not, therefore, say ‘I feel nauseous,” unless you are sure you have that effect on others.” –William Strunk



Thanks and a tip of the hat to the Texas reader who has subscribed to LetsTakeACloserLook.com since 2016. He sent me a note drawing my attention to the common interweb initialism WWW, and why it’s an oddity.

WWW has three letters, nine fewer than World Wide Web’s 12, so it’s lots easier to write. Now say www out loud. If you said Dou-ble-U, Dou-ble-U, Dou-ble-U, you’re one of the few that pronounces the letter W correctly, using all three syllables. Most of us commoners and the occasional U.S. president say dub-ya, dub-ya, dub-ya, eliding three syllables down to two. If we use three syllables to say each W, that means W-W-W has nine syllables; if we use two, then W-W-W has six syllables, making it easier to say the entire word than to use the abbreviation, which is upside-down from why we have abbreviations in the first place.

Talk about an outlier – it takes two or three times longer to say the abbreviation than it does to skip it and say the entire phrase instead. 



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