An editorial by Patricia Bouweraerts —
American corporate and political organizations are delightfully infatuated with trendy acronyms and initialisms — from CVS to FLOTUS to SMUD to PFU — and yet these abbreviated letterings may cause confusion, they sometimes word-paint in a not-so-good way, and the shortening can be a cryptic substitute for transparency.
In Associate Press (AP) writing style the first time an abbreviated name is referenced, the full title is spelled out and its initial letters are placed immediately afterwards in parentheses. The purpose driving AP style is to be as clear as possible to readers — to educate and raise understanding. A reporter indicates up front what he or she is talking about.
Being clear and direct with people is a show of respect.
Conversely, when names are hidden behind an unmeaningful acronym or initialism, a listener is compelled to figure out what the initial letters mean. It slows understanding. This is an extra step that could be saved by an organization stating their title in a straightforward way. Simply using a small set of letters is cagey. The secret is directed to a privileged clique who is in the know.
Sometimes abbreviations even bring up negative connotations of similar words, such as STPUD, South Tahoe Public Utility District.
How do acronyms and initialisms differ?
Acronyms and initialisms are different, although both are a type of abbreviation.
An excellent explanation of the difference between acronyms and initialisms is posted on Grammar Girl’s website. It has been shared on social media close to 3,000 times as of this month. Mignon Fogarty is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.” She does not express an opinion about the use of abbreviations, but gives a clear and concise definition of the concepts.
”FBI and CIA are examples of initialisms because they’re made up of the first letters of Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency, respectively, but they can’t be pronounced as words,” she wrote. “NASA, on the other hand, is an acronym because even though it is also made up of the first letters of the department name (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), it is pronounced as a word, NASA, and not by spelling out the letters N, A, S, A.”
Acronyms and initialisms at work can cause misunderstandings
Once at an organization where I was working, I joined a new-to-me committee. Soon after the meeting began, the committee chair began using an initialism in multiple sentences, referring to various situations of importance to the committee’s work with the ambiguous initials.
The only concept or organization I knew that used this specific initialism was a large and well-known cultural organization in my home city. But this workplace committee had nothing even remotely in common with an arts and culture theme.
Being the new person, would I be looked at as uninformed if I interrupted those speaking and asked for clarification of the abbreviation?
In an effort to figure it out quietly I simply wrote down the full name of the cultural organization on the paper in front of me. It eventually became clear to me what the committee members were talking about at this particular meeting, but I forgot to cross out that first note.
It happened that I was seated next to a long-standing member of this committee who may have seen the organization’s name written on my notepad. …It was interesting to note that at the next meeting, the first time the initialism was spoken, the letters were clearly defined for the words they represented.
Acronyms when duplicated can misinform
At times, multiple organizations use the exact same acronym or initialism to mean totally different names. Is this a show of discourtesy to a company or group already using the specific abbreviation? Here are some interesting opposing letterings to consider:
- AMA — American Medical Association, or American Marketing Association, or American Motorcycle Association
- ITC — International Trade Commission, Instructional Technology Council, or Indian Tobacco Company Limited
- NRC—National Research Council, or Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- PSA — Public service announcement, or prostate-specific antigen, or Public Speakers Association, or Professional Sports Authenticator
- SBC — Southwestern Bell Corporation, or Southern Baptist Convention, or Southport Brewing Company
- USC — University of Southern California, or University of South Carolina, or Cisco United Computing System
- WWF — World Wildlife Fund, or World Wrestling Federation
Phillip Davis, president and CEO of Tungsten Branding writes that he has named more than 250 companies, services and products globally. He wrote on his company’s website that one of the reasons initialisms are not as effective for brand names comes from this abbreviation duplication.
“You will compete with every other company, in and out of your industry, that shares your letters (WWF… Wrestlers or Pandas?),” he added.
Acronyms are meaningless when the original name is dropped
Sometimes the names represented by the initial letters may be longish, or their definitions have simply been forgotten. Do you know the full name of the store you’re shopping at — or the bank you’re trusting — what is beyond the nebulous letters such as CVS or HSBC? The full name might be inconsequential, but it would be nice to have in front of you.
- ASICS — anima sana in corpore sano (Latin for a healthy soul in a healthy body)
- CVS — Consumer Value Stores
- DSW — Designer Shoe Warehouse
- ECRWSS (printed on bulk mail) — Enhanced Carrier Route Saturation Standard
- HSBC — Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation
- IKEA — Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd
- M & M — Mars & Murrie’s
Davis wrote that most companies abbreviating their name are making a mistake because they don’t have the decades of brand awareness that GE and IBM have. By the way, GE is General Electric and IBM stands for International Business Machines.
“Even with the advantage of time and financial resources, these names can (be) clunky and difficult to articulate,” he wrote. “Witness TIAA-CREF, an abbreviated company name standing for Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund. What started as a literal company name was reduced to meaningless initials, with a hyphen added in for good measure.”
He added that the company has succeeded due to its quality, not its name.
Misrepresentative acronyms or initialisms are out there
Various acronyms do not represent the actual initial letters of the person or organization’s name.
“So Royal Philips Electronics has selected ‘NXP’ as the name of its newly independent semiconductor company,” wrote Al Ries on AdAge.com. “What does NXP stand for? Nothing, but according to the company’s chief executive, the name communicates ‘vibrancy and entertainment.’”
The initials may be different from the organization’s original name for several reasons — there could be another person or group with the same initials, or there may be an advertising advantage to a different letter, a niftier sound. The mission of the group may have evolved.
Initials that no longer match the names they stand for may have been intended as time-savers, not planned to mislead. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the result will prevent confusion when people try to figure out what the letters represent.
- Michael J. Fox is Michael Andrew Fox
- AABB, AARP, CBS, Inc., and NPR have dropped their full names
- The International Justice and Public Safety Network is NLETS (changed its name from National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System)
- CSX Transportation is Chessie Seaboard Consolidated (X indicates consolidated)
- Wi-Fi is an advertising agency’s nonsense word-play on Hi-Fi, or high fidelity, not intended as “wireless fidelity”
Of the ten most reputable companies in the world — reported by Statista.com – most do not use abbreviation initial letters:
- Rolls Royce
- The Walt Disney Company
Acronyms can cloud the nature or tone of what they stand for
At times acronyms and initialisms simply do not represent the character of an individual or tone of an organization.
Consider the following:
- POTUS sounds like a poultice applied to an inflamed wound, not the President of the United States
- And then, how about FLOTUS? It sounds like flatus or flatulence, not elegant enough to stand for the First Lady of the United States
- SLO Transit is the City of San Luis Obispo’s Transit Division. The busses are most likely not any slower than the Carson City, Nevada’s JAC Bus, Jump Around Carson
- PFU is Proto-Flight Unit, Atmospheric Research Center (kids will giggle when saying these initials)
- SMUD is Sacramento Municipal Utility District, sounding more like mud or smudge — or something the mob would do to a rival, perhaps
Are acronyms and initialisms helpful time-saving devices? Or are they cryptic … acronyms, passive-aggressive language devices — #APALD?
Companies and organizations can say what they mean directly without shortening a perfectly unique name down to three or four quick letters. To say names and concepts in a straightforward manner is the most respectful way to communicate, being clear, positive and truthful.
More on abbreviations, acronyms, and Initialisms, the Grammar Girl
More on effective branding without abbreviations, Tungsten Branding
More on initials in advertising and the world of branding, AdAge.com