May 6, 2009


A previous job in the defense industry exposed me to a vast world of abbreviations for all sorts of long-named technical and administrative inventions. My computer science college career certainly contained it's share of jargon, but the defense industry seemed to raise the practice to an art form. Glossaries would be circulated in the company to inculcate tyros and give seasoned veterans a quick reminder of the meanings of ADCAP, CCS-MK2, AN/BQQ-5, PM/FL, and other such esoterica.

One joke among techies is the abbreviation "TLA" which is said to be a self-referential abbreviation for "three-letter acronym." Techie geeks love self-reference.

But geeks also like precision, and this joke is not precise.

According to the definition, an acronym is an abbreviation formed by the initials of a phrase or other name, but it forms a new word. For example "NATO" (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is not pronounced "en ay tee oh" but rather, "naytoh." It's pronounced as if it is, itself, a word or name.

Abbreviations that are not pronounced, such as "TLA" and "FBI," are more accurately described as "initialisms." They're not words.

Personally, I like acronyms better, because they're more friendly and memorable than a bunch of initials.

If you like the "TLA" joke, then it still works if you take it to mean "three-letter abbreviation." Correct usage makes a difference to me, not because of persnicketiness, but rather because it's a meaningful distinction. If you ask someone to come up with an acronym and they give you an initialism, you wouldn't get what you wanted. Better that people use the correct word rather than having to explain that you want something that can be pronounced.

Posted by James at May 6, 2009 12:03 PM
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One of my favorites was always DISCO (Defense Intelligence Security Clearance Organization). O noes! Our intelligence is stuck in the 70s!

Posted by: briwei at May 6, 2009 12:57 PM

Correct usage matters to me, too. I can't manage to parse this, despite repeated tries: "an abbreviation formed by the initial comprised of a phrase or other name".

Still, I know what you mean. I've always heard "TLA" turned into "Three-Letter Abbreviation" (though the hyphen's often omitted), and only rarely with "acronym". On the other hand, more-than-three-letter abbreviations are often called TLAs.

It's a common misconception, by the way, that acronyms must be initialisms. An acronym comprises the first letter *or letters* of its component words, and the gummint is very good at tapping into the plural version, with ones like CINCPAC (Commander IN Chief, PACific) and SEAL (SEa, Air, Land).

I like it when acronyms get into the language: radar, scuba, laser... and a couple of foreign ones, flak and gulag.

Along the lines of self-reference are the recursive ones (GNU == "Gnu's Not Unix", and "foil", which is what we used to call transparencies in IBM, was purported to be an acronym for "Foil Over Incandescent Light" (yeh, right)) and the nested ones. My favourite nested abbreviation was a three-level nesting: VRNA. It stood for Virtual RSCS Network Architecture; RSCS was Remote SPOOLing Communications Subsystem; SPOOL (a "bacronym", surely) was Simultaneous Peripheral Operations On-Line.

And, of course, there are the famous SNAFU and FUBAR. But this exercise is a true WOMBAT.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at May 6, 2009 5:53 PM

...except there is no more CINCPAC. Now it's COMUSPACOM...the only CINC is POTUS. I notice the President and Supreme Court (SCOTUS) have acronyms but not Congress. COTUS? How about "Legislature of the United States" - LOTUS?

Now, I understand that before WWII there was a CINCUSFLEET, but that was quickly discarded. Just say it once and you'll know why.

If we ever got confused we would look in the DICNAVAB - Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations

Posted by: Bull at May 6, 2009 9:41 PM

Yeah, that sentence was nonparseable. I think it was posted in mid-edit. Thanks, I fixed it.

I use hyphens pretty loosely, not only when a phrase would have an ambiguous meaning without it, but also when I feel it would be a guide to cadence in reading. Maybe it's because my reading is too tied to sound in my head.

In any case, some of my favorite acronyms are not strictly initialisms (SEAL is a good example). When I'm trying to come up with an acronym, I take a pretty liberal approach. I think it is my friend Chuck's influence; he has a rare gift for coming up with acronyms that stick.

My attempts rarely catch on at work; there is little appetite for a good acronym among my current management. Instead we seem to gravitate to ridiculously similar initialisms. Imagine intentionally sticking with CC2 and C2C projects at the same time.

I guess it didn't help that so many of my suggested acronyms were probably not going to fly wiht teachers and school administrators.

Posted by: James at May 7, 2009 8:00 AM

I recently attended a workshop on Information Assurance standards for DoD contractors. I was drowned in a sea of TLA's, acronyms, and obtuse abbreviations for policies. In my assessment of the workshop the one thing I said that they could do to vastly improve the course: an appendix in the workshop materials that decoded all the lingo!

Posted by: Kitten Herder at May 7, 2009 6:20 PM

Oh, one more thought: I used to know someone who pronounced *all* TLAs, however hard they were to manage. "CPU" was, to him, "kuh-POO". And such. It was cute at first. At first....

Posted by: Barry Leiba at May 7, 2009 7:33 PM

There's one on every engineering team...

Posted by: James at May 7, 2009 8:14 PM

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