The Language Perfectionist: An “Abbreviated” Column

I’ve long been fascinated by acronyms. An acronym is a pronounceable word formed by the initial letters of a phrase, such as ASAP (as soon as possible) and SWAK (sealed with a kiss).

For ages, curmudgeons have railed against acronyms and other abbreviations, calling them cryptic and confusing. But in a high-tech society, this age-old device has its benefits, including brevity. For texters with overtaxed thumbs, shorthand is always an advantage.

Some acronyms have entered the language as genuine words. Examples include radar (radio detection and ranging), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), and snafu (bowdlerized version: situation normal, all fouled up).

But what I most enjoy are the acronymic coinages that are meaningful, appropriate, ingenious, or clever. Here are a few examples:

  • ALOHA (Aboriginal Lands of Hawaiian Ancestry), a campaign to compensate native citizens for property that was confiscated generations earlier.
  • BOADICEA (British Overseas Airways Digital Information Computer for Electronic Automation). Boadicea was the ancient Celtic warrior queen who led a revolt against invading Romans. The name, by the way, is pronounced “boh-uh-duh-SEE-uh.”
  • LOBSTER (Long-term Ocean Bottom Settlement Test for Engineering Research), a U.S. Navy project.
  • SCROOGE (Society to Curtail Ridiculous, Outrageous, and Ostentatious Gift Exchange), a group protesting Christmas commercialism.

If you use an unfamiliar acronym in your writing, always provide the full form — called the expansion — on first mention in the document. Example: “A spokesperson for SNOOP (Students Naturally Opposed to Outrageous Prying) announced yesterday that….” Thereafter, the acronym alone may be cited with impunity.

Finally, don’t make the common mistake of using acronym to describe A.T.M., E.S.P., T.G.I.F., and the like. When it’s pronounced not as a word but letter by letter, it’s an initialism, as the periods indicate.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]