Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional cleverly named series in words I'm looking up)


I'm teaching on online copy editing course (or, as the school calls it, a copyediting course). This week, students are learning about "acronyms."

I've long had an issue with this word. People use it interchangeably with "initialisms." But not all dictionaries support that.

Webster's New World College Dictionary, which is the designated resource in the newspaper copy editing work I do, says that an acronym is a set of initials pronounced as a word: radar, NASCAR. Initials that are pronounced as individual letters are not acronyms but initialisms: FBI, FAA, CIA.

BUT, Merriam-Webster, which is the designated dictionary for the Chicago Manual of Style, which is what we follow in the course, does allow using acronym to mean initialism, albeit reluctantly.

The author of the textbook for the copy editing course mentions this distinction in a footnote, but adds that it's common to call initialisms acronyms -- then she proceeds to do so throughout the chapter. I couldn't leave it alone. I informed students that, according to another widely used dictionary, this use of "acronym" is an error and that, even according to our dictionary, it's questionable.

I recommended that, as copy editors, they observe the distinction.

I have no doubt that the dictionaries will soon be changed to reflect real-world usage of the word "acronym." But, until they do, I think that people who aspire to careers as copy editors should take the more conservative approach. (Or at least be made fully aware of the controversy.)

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Big Sky Daddy said...

Yea, I don't know about that. If I read the word "initialism" in an article I'd have to look it up. The idea is to communicate with your readers, right? Heck, my spell checker is telling me it's not even a word.

Debbie Diesen said...

If it makes you feel any better, over on the "Typo of the Day for Librarians" blog, today's posting begins with a recap of the distinction between acronyms and initialisms.

(Yet another reason to love librarians!)


June Casagrande said...

Hmmmm ... good point. Initials then?

If only everyone would do things my way we wouldn't have all these problems. (Of course, I'd have the problem of figuring out what the hell "my way" is. But as long as it doesn't require me to marry Mia Farrow, I could muddle through.)

June Casagrande said...

Deb: How funny that I had the same topic on the brain as the librarian site. And, yes, I do love librarians. (Not just for the obvious reasons, but also they're great comedy audiences, as I found out at an American Library Association/Friends of Libraries USA comedy panel two summers ago. Fun bunch.)

Adrian Morgan said...

Initialism is such an ugly word, which is probably why nobody ever uses it.

Personally, I think that a word meaning "abbreviation formed from initial letters" is more useful than a word meaning "abbreviation pronounced as a word". So, given that "initialism" is ugly and should die, I'd be perfectly happy to see "acronym" take its place.

June Casagrande said...

Why does my spam filter sift out some blogger comment notifications and not others? Very annoying.

Yeah, I agree that "initalism" is none too elegant. I'm sure "acroymn" will take over its job soon. Still, as things stand, it seemed I should make copy-editing students aware of the distinction.


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