Tuesday March 19, 2013
MIND OUR ENGLISH
By FADZILAH AMIN
Did you know that ‘laser’ is actually an acronym for ‘Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation’? Here is a look at the wonderful world of short forms.
The world is so fast-moving nowadays that we don’t seem able to speak or write without using short forms of one kind or another.
Take the following snippet of a conversation, for example, that we may hear anywhere today in the English-speaking world:
Person A: Did you get the UN job in New York?
Person B: Oh yes! And it comes with so many perks, too. A condo, a car with GPS and so on. But I would really have preferred a UNESCO job in Paris, wouldn’t you?
Person A: UN, perks, condo, car, GPS, UNESCO, who wouldn’t!
The snippet is bristling with short forms of words and names of organisations. What do we call these short forms? They are known by many names, and there are differences of opinion about what terms should be used for some of them.
Take the term acronym, for example. Its most general definition is “a word formed from the initial letters of other words” (Oxford English Dictionary). But this is open to interpretation.
Some dictionaries (like Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary) have a narrow interpretation of the term, and only consider words like “laser”, “radar”, “Aids” and “scuba” as acronyms.
Scuba, for instance, stands for “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus”. These are words that are widely used, but whose origins as a collection of initial letters many users are unaware of.
These are also words that have been combined with other words, e.g. in laserdisc, laser printer, scuba-diving. Other words formed from initial letters like UNESCO (or Unesco) and UNICEF (or Unicef), which can be pronounced as words are classified by these dictionaries as abbreviations.
At the other end of the spectrum are dictionaries like the Merriam-Webster which also includes in its definition of acronym “an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters”.
The definition I like best for this term comes from the online Collins English Dictionary, which is: “a pronounceable name made up of a series of initial letters or parts of words; for example, UNESCO for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization”. I must explain that this dictionary has definitions of words in three varieties of English: American English, British English, and what it calls “English Worldwide”, from which the above definition comes (www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/acronym).
The keyword in the definition is “pronounceable”, which would make terms like Unesco, Unicef, Nato, Asean, Umno, satnav (satellite navigation) acronyms, because the initial letters are pronounceable as words. Terms like FBI, UN, UNHCR, IMF, KL and GPS (Global Positioning System, another name for satnav), in which the initial letters of the abbreviations are pronounced separately would not therefore be called acronyms.
What do we call the second group of terms, then? Several dictionaries refer to them as abbreviations, but there is a more specific word for them, not usually found in advanced learner’s dictionaries, nor generally used by non-linguists. The word is initialism, and is defined as “an abbreviation consisting of initial letters pronounced separately (e.g. BBC)” (COD).
I think this term ought to be better known and more widely used to distinguish between the two types of abbreviations formed mainly from initial letters of words.
How are acronyms formed, so that they can be pronounceable? Not every initial letter of the phrase to be acronymized (yes, there is such a word, see the OED!) is always used. And sometimes a vowel is added for pronounceability. Laser, for instance, formed from “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”, leaves out the initial letters of the words “by” and “of” in the phrase. In contrast, radar, formed from “Radio Detection And Ranging” uses the initial letter of every word, including “and”, as do Aids and Scuba.
UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) which used to be known as the “United Nations International Children’s Fund” must have been formed from the initial letters of the first four words of its original name, i.e. UNIC, and then an “E” is added before the “F” in order to make the term pronounceable.
A pronounceable abbreviation (i.e. acronym) is more easily remembered than one that is not (i.e. initialism). UNICEF is surely easier to remember than UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). And I can remember satnav (made up of parts of two words – satellite and navigation) better than GPS, which I often refer to as SPG or PGS!
There is another kind of short form which we often use now, which dictionaries record as informal. These are parts of longer words, like exam (examination), perks (perquisites), demo (demonstration), promo (“promoting” or “promotion” – connected with advertising), condo (condominium), sync(h) (synchronization), info (information), pop (“popular”, as in “pop music”) retro (“retrospective”), and auto (“automobile”, as in “the auto industry”).
In fact many of us are not aware of or have forgotten that what we now call “car” began life as “motor car” in Britain and “automobile” in America. Several years ago, my memory was jolted when an old-fashioned American friend told me: “You know I don’t have an automobile, don’t you?” It sounded so quaint! However, cars are not called “autos” now in America: they are also called “cars”.
As for retro, which came into the language in 1973 through the French abbreviation of rétrograde, it means “something that imitates or harks back to a former style; esp. a style or fashion (of dress, music, etc) that is nostalgically retrospective” (OED)
I won’t spend much time on another kind of short form called contraction, which was already in use even when Shakespeare started writing in the 16th century. These are forms like “I’ll” for “I will”, “aren’t” for “are not”, “he’s” for “he is” or “he has” and so on. I’m sure most readers are very familiar with these.
Finally, I’ll spend even less time on SMS and Chat abbreviations, which I find hard to decipher at my age. During one of the few Internet Chats I’ve participated in, a young girl wrote BRB, and I thought she meant she was burping after having a fizzy drink!
> Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language. Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org