Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
“I always correct people when they call an initialism that is not an acronym an acronym. Although, I think I come across a bit like a snob or a jerk, or both.” -Rick, Fishers
Rick, you bring up a great point. Are you a snob, jerk, or both? When you wear your gold-rimmed monocle to the grocery store, it’s a bit over the top. So, maybe you’re a snob with jerk-like tendencies.
Regarding your grammar distinction, let’s tackle it head-on. Most people probably think they know what an acronym is, but let’s review. An acronym is an abbreviation where the abbreviation is formed from letters of other words, usually the first letter of each word. This abbreviation (to be considered an acronym) needs to be pronounceable as its own word. Examples include NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), radar (Radio Detection and Ranging), SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) and taser (Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle).
If you are pronouncing the abbreviation as its own word, your resulting word is an acronym. On the other hand, if you’re pronouncing the letters of each word, you’ve got an initialism on your hands. Examples of initialisms include DVD (digital versatile disc), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and FYI (for your information). Initialisms are traditionally capitalized.
Now, things get murky, thanks to the internet. Are internet slang abbreviations like LOL (laughing out loud) and ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) acronyms or initialisms? I’ve heard people pronounce each of these abbreviated phrases using just the letters as well as spoken phonetically. In the case of ROFL, the acronym version rhymes with “awful.” And, with the proliferation of texting and social media commenting, these abbreviations are increasingly not capitalized. In fact, if you capitalize them, you might be accused of being an old person.
As popular usage of the term acronym has expanded to include initialisms, I wouldn’t be surprised if dictionaries follow suit to include initialisms in the definition of acronyms (much like figuratively has been added as a definition under literally). Does that make it right? Not necessarily. But, if you’re going to constantly correct people about it, you’ll probably be called both a snob and a jerk — even though you’re right.