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What is the Difference Between an Acronym, Alphabetism, and Initialism?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Acronyms, initialisms, and alphabetisms are all words that are formed by combining initial letters or parts of other words for the sake of brevity. For example, many people prefer to say “amphetamine” rather than “alpha-methyl-phenethylamine,” because the first word is much easier to remember, say, and write. The difference between these three word forms is that acronyms are designed to be pronounced, while initialisms and alphabetisms are created without regard to pronunciation.

An acronym can be made from the initial letters of words in a phrase, as in the case of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or it can be made from parts of words in a phrase, like with RAdio Detection And Ranging (radar). These terms are arranged in such a way that they can be pronounced without needing to spell out the letters. Some other well-known examples include AIDS, Gestapo, scuba, and laser. In some cases, companies design an acronym so that it spells a meaningful word, as in the case of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

When an initialism is created, it usually cannot be pronounced, forcing people to spell the letters out, as in the case of United States Air Force (USAF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Sometimes, people will adopt shortcuts when spelling these terms out, as in the case of the NAACP, which many people in the United States pronounce as “en double-A cee pee.” Initialisms are also sometimes known as alphabetisms, referencing the idea that people spell out the letters of the alphabet rather than saying a word.

Sometimes, an acronym and an initialism come together in a strange hybrid, as in the case of the JPEG, often pronounced “jay peg,” or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which is usually pronounced “es ef moma.” There is some dispute about what to call these hybrids, since they blend characteristics of both types of abbreviation.

Companies and organizations are usually very careful when they create a new acronym. They generally need to think about whether or not they want to make a pronounceable word, and how people might pronounce the word without any guidance or cues. Most also try to avoid accidentally spelling something unsavory, while some deliberately play with bad language, as in the case of the French Connection United Kingdom, a company with an initialism that results in a spoonerism that closely resembles a curse word.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon345953 — On Aug 24, 2013

If I mix up an acronym what, is it called. For example Richmond Heavies On Tour (THOR)?

By anon333175 — On May 03, 2013

Some favorites: SNAFU = Situation Normal, All Fouled* Up;

FUBAR = Fouled* Up Beyond All Recognition.

By anon333170 — On May 03, 2013

SPEL = the fictitious "Society for the Preservation of the English Language". It's mildly amusing because the acronym SPEL is a misspelling of the word "spell".

I sometimes use this in my signature line following a rant about the wanton destruction of standard English in speech or writing, such as adding an apostrophe + s to form plurals of common words, as in "Idiot's are everywhere these days."

By ginSoul — On Jul 01, 2011

@SushiChamp – You’re right. By the way, there’s an acronym finder online and you won’t believe some of the acronyms they have on there from real organizations.

For example, MEOW is the name of a certain electro-optic weapon. FART is an acronym for several first responder teams and even a group of respiratory therapists. DUMB is the acronym for a college marching band. POOP is an acronym for several software languages and coding problems.

You should try plugging words into the acronym finder site and see what you come up with.

By SushiChamp — On Jun 30, 2011

So when I message my friends, I use text acronyms! I bet millions of people are texting acronyms to their friends right now, and they don’t even realize it. Text acronyms must be one of the most widely used acronym types at this time.

By everetra — On Jun 30, 2011

Sometimes people invent funny acronyms that have no official purpose other than to get a point across. I remember when the BP oil spill happened some time ago my dad pointed out that other nations had offered their assistance in cleaning up the spill, but that the United States had declined their assistance.

When I asked why, my dad wryly responded “NIH” – which, he explained, stands for “Not Invented Here”.

In other words, if we didn’t invent the technology for cleaning up the spill, we don’t need the help. While I don’t exactly share his cynicism, it is a funny term and I’ve heard it crop up from time to time in different situations.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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