Ambiguous initialisms

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Menachem Wecker, "One NRA fights for guns. One for restaurants. Yes, D.C. has abbreviation overload.", WaPo 7/15/2019:

It was the malapropism heard around certain corners of social media. When Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) asked Ben Carson recently about REOs — real estate owned properties — the housing and urban development secretary appeared to hear a reference to cookies, i.e., Oreos. While the incident quickly became a referendum on Carson's knowledge of housing policy — he would later dismiss the episode as gotcha politics, telling ABC News, "Give me a break," perhaps a subconscious Kit Kat allusion — it did point to a frequently overlooked hazard of life in Washington: Acronyms and other abbreviations, a second language for many wonks, can be confusing, problematic or simply embarrassing.

The article's headline references the NRA (the National Rifle Association and the National Restaurant Association). In the body of the article, we learn about NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the National Association of Theatre Owners), GWU (George Washington University, Gardner-Webb University, and the Gambia Workers Union), and UDC (the University of the District of Columbia, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Utah Department of Corrections), among others.

My personal favorite is not mentioned there — the domain was snagged in 1997 by the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association, which was quicker to hop on the internet bandwagon than the Linguistic Society of America was, so that the LSA had to settle for A search at Acronym Finder  will turn up dozens of other candidates for LSA or for nearly any other short letter sequence.

Some sticklers insist on reserving the term acronym for letter-sequences pronounced as words, like NATO, NAFTA, and BERT, with letter-sequences pronounced as a series of letter names to be called initialisms or perhaps abbreviations. And then there are the letter sequences that remain in use although they no longer stand for anything (see "Orphan initalisms", 9/7/2006).

Letter-string-name proliferation is one of the factors that leads to underestimating how many "words" people know, since the lists used in the estimation process generally lack entries of that type.

Individual knowledge of such things is even more variable than word-knowledge is in general. I happen to know DRL as the local way of referring to the building known more fully as "David Rittenhouse Labs", and ORS as Penn's Office of Research Services, and GSE as Penn's Graduate School of Education, among many other Penn-specific three-letter initialisms. There are lots of local four-letter initialisms and acronyms as well, such as SEAS (School of Engineering and Applied Science) and CHAS (College Houses and Academic Services). But people with no experience of Penn arcana will have their own local trove of  such things, as well as others accumulated over their personal history.

Testing myself on random selections, I estimate that I "know" (in some sense) about a thousand three-letter acronyms and initialisms — about 6% of the 26^3 = 15576 possibilities. And I probably know a similar count across two-, four-, and five-letter sequences. Depending on their life experience, others may know a smaller or larger number, but always quite a few. Add the large mental lexicon of place names, company names, band names, etc. etc., and most adults are going to rack up an inventory of ten or twenty thousand entries before we even start counting the "words" that are usually tested. (And for more confusion, see "Ask Language Log: Comparing the vocabularies of different languages", 3/31/2008.)



  1. David Donnell said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    MAGA = Mexican-American Grocers Association

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    It's one thing when the same initialism represents entities in completely different fields. But then there is APA, which stands for (among many other things) both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association.

  3. James said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 8:48 am

    And the American Philosophical Association!

  4. Leo said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    Two of the more sensitive cases of multiple meaning, from a British perspective, are RAF (which in Germany is the Rote Armee Fraktion, i.e the Baader-Meinhof gang) and BNP, which in France is not the far-right British National Party but merely the Banque Nationale de Paris.

  5. Jonathan said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 9:56 am

    Surprised that no-one here has mentioned IPA yet.

    [(myl) You mean the International Police Association? or perhaps the Institute for Public Accuracy? Perhaps the Innovative Payments Association, or the Institute for Portfolio Alternatives. ]

  6. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 10:15 am

    Irish Republican Army/Individual Retirement Account, and at one time Industrial Relations Act.

    The Federation of British Industry, on the other hand, changed its name to the Confederation of British Industry.

  7. rosie said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 11:44 am

    But the quoted incident has nothing to do with an ambiguous initialism: it might have been the result of a mis-hearing or the misunderstanding of someone due to their accent.

    As for the notion that orphan initialisms no longer stand for anything. They still stand for names; it's just that the things that used to have those names either no longer exist or still exist but not with those names.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 1:23 pm

    "As for the notion that orphan initialisms no longer stand for anything. They still stand for names; it's just that the things that used to have those names either no longer exist or still exist but not with those names". I would certainly agree with that, but what staggered me on reading the original 2006 article is that, according to the author (and I have no reason to disbelieve him), AT&T and KFC no longer exist, at least by the names by which I always knew them ("[the] American Telephone & Telegraph Company" & "Kentucky Fried Chicken"). So if "KFC" is no longer "Kentucky Fried Chicken", whose products does KFC now sell ?

  9. andrew said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 2:21 pm

    > Louisiana Sheriff's Association

    How many sheriffs?

  10. John Carr said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 2:24 pm

    The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia hears a lot of cases involving federal agencies. Administrative law can be a real alphabet soup. The court has a special request for lawyers: "Parties are strongly urged to limit the use of acronyms. While acronyms may be used for entities and statutes with widely recognized initials, such as FERC and FOIA, parties should avoid using acronyms that are not widely known." On top of this polite request is a legally binding rule specific to the court: "All briefs containing abbreviations, including acronyms, must provide a 'Glossary' defining each such abbreviation on a page immediately following the table of authorities. Abbreviations that are part of common usage need not be defined."

  11. Theophylact said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 2:25 pm

    To this retired chemist, IPA is a common abbreviation for isopropyl alcohol (IUPAC name: propan-2-ol; CAS name:2-Propanol). Oh, and IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. is generally pronounced "yoo-pack" in the US, and CAS, Chemical Abstracts Service, is also treated as an acronym, rhyming with gas.

  12. Theophylact said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 2:30 pm

    Personal note: A number of years ago, in preparation for a trip to France, I googled "ATM" and "Paris". The first five pages of hits were all about Asymmetric Transfer Mode; I never did locate what the Brits call a cashpoint terminal.

  13. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 2:41 pm

    The institution I work at used to be known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. It had an abbreviation that was sometimes used, and became associated with it. In the 1960's, the administration decided it should expand its focus and massively expand its student body, but for historical reasons, should maintain a name with connections to the past. It is no longer an agricultural and mechanical college, but is instead a full-fledged university, with the name "Texas A&M University", where those letters in the center are just a connection to the history, rather than an abbreviation for any particular words.

  14. Rick Rubenstein said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 3:04 pm

    The dispute between the World Wildlife Fund and the World Wrestling Federation was rather celebrated. The pandas won, so the wrestlers were SOL and then WWE.

  15. Peter Taylor said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 3:05 pm

    I assumed Jonathan was talking about India Pale Ale…

    [(myl) For LLOG readers, the obvious ambiguity is the International Phonetic Alphabet vs. India Pale Ale — but in fact there are many less obvious options.]

    Theophylact, in over two decades of living in England I never heard any Brit use the noun phrase "cashpoint terminal". My unscientific impression is that the most common names used for that particular device are "cashpoint", "cash machine", and "hole in the wall".

  16. Chiara Maqueda said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 3:59 pm

    There can be some amusement surrounding acronyms, not least the unintended consequences of picking really stupid ones–something spin doctors and their political masters often pick. For some Australian examples:

    [(myl) Famous local example: ASSOL.]

  17. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 4:28 pm

    The American Philological Association has now changed its name to the Society for Classical Studies, though I think this was less because of other APA's than because 'philological' has changed its meaning since the society was founded.

    There's also WWF and the other WWF, now known as WWE.

  18. David Morris said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 4:57 pm

    I was once a member of the Music Arrangers' Guild of Australia. I don't have a red hat from that time.

  19. ktschwarz said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 5:09 pm

    KFC sells the same fried chicken as it always did. The name was changed in 1991 to get away from the bad connotations of "fried". Soon afterward, an urban legend sprang up that they had to change it because their product wasn't chicken but some genetically engineered mutant species! Not only that, but, on one of its troll pages, made up a story that they got rid of "Kentucky" because the state of Kentucky trademarked it.

  20. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 6:27 pm

    @ Chiara Maqueda
    Just love the idea of the exponential growth of acronym use being subject to some sort of "linguistic Moore’s Law"!

  21. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 7:22 pm

    @Chiara Maqueda
    Just love the idea of the the geometric expansion of Internet generated acronyms as being subject to some sort of "linguistic Moore's Law".

  22. Chas Belov said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 11:51 pm

    ATM = Adobe Type Manager (R.I.P.)

    SFMTA = San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Association (which always seemed redundant to me)

  23. Chris said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 1:55 am

    These are technically known as TLAs or three letter acronyms, which is nicely recursive.

  24. John Swindle said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 1:57 am

    Neuro-linguistic Programming (a vs natural language processing.

  25. Keith said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 2:43 am

    I think that the "problem" with abbreviation collision is a lot like that concerning town names.

    In the US, a great many towns and cities share their names with others within the US or in other countries, and so to avoid confusion are often given in the form "city, state" (sometimes the state is abbreviated), such as "Springfield, Missouri", "Springfield, New Hampshire", "Springfield, Massachusetts".

    As the physical territory with a shared language increases, so the risk of toponym collision when founding a new town increases.

    Likewise, within a language: as new abbreviations are created, the risk of abbreviation collision increases.

    Unlike toponyms, though, an abbreviation is intended to be a shortened form of a name, so it would be counterproductive to refer, for example, to "the APA (Pyshological)"

  26. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 2:51 am

    At work, people from the neighbouring department have been known to use AGB to mean both Auxiliary GearBox and Accessory GearBox in the same document (and no those are not the same thing).

    To astronomers it's Asymptotic Giant Branch.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 3:57 am

    ktschwarz said "KFC sells the same fried chicken as it always did. The name was changed in 1991 to get away from the bad connotations of 'fried'". Staggering. Do the KFC Board really believe that people will forget the original expansion of KFC, or are they hoping that new generations will adopt the product without ever knowing (or caring) how it is prepared ?

    But it would seem that you are correct, since the web site clearly states "[O]ur fresh chicken is […] pressure cooked at a low temperature to preserve all the great taste we’re known for around the world". "Pressure cooked", not "pressure fried" — a truly mind-boggling example of weasel words ! The whole process is nicely documented here.

  28. Rose Eneri said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 8:11 am

    Here's an article about friends of mine who long ago started a company, Christian Book Distributors, doing business as, "CBD". They have had to change the company name to "Christian Book" because they kept getting calls for the synthetic cannabis, Cannabidiol-dimethylheptyl, CBD.

    Pet peeve – People who say "ATM machine"

  29. poftim said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 9:43 am

    The World Taekwondo Federation changed its name a couple of years ago.

  30. Ellen K. said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 10:52 am

    Regarding KFC, they also have grilled chicken (bone in, no grilled chicken sandwiches) and pot pies, so it's not all grilled. Also, their website has "Kentucky Fried Chicken" at the top on all pages, so they haven't completely abandoned it.

  31. Abigail said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 10:56 am

    The world’s most famous three-letter initialism: WTF (Wisconsin Tourism Federation).

  32. Abigail said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 10:58 am

    @Rose Eneri: Do you need a PIN number to use an ATM machine?

  33. Abigail said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 11:14 am

    1) FART = Fairfield Area Rapid Transit
    FAX = Fresno Area Express

    2) According to internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch (who is not really a linguist, just like military “linguists” are not really linguists):

    LOL for “Laughing Out Loud”, but
    lol for “ “amusement, irony and even passive aggression.” (e.g., “what are you doing out so late lol”)

  34. Nancy Friedman said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 12:29 pm

    Iva Cheung wrote about ambiguous acronyms and initialisms for Strong Language, the sweary blog about swearing:

  35. Theophylact said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 1:53 pm

    Peter Taylor:

    Theophylact, in over two decades of living in England I never heard any Brit use the noun phrase "cashpoint terminal". My unscientific impression is that the most common names used for that particular device are "cashpoint", "cash machine", and "hole in the wall".

    I tend to call it a "Mugg-o-Matic", myself, but I wouldn't google for that.

  36. Andy Averill said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 1:58 pm

    CIA = Culinary Institute of America

    Why hasn’t somebody exploited this for a comedy spy thriller?

  37. Anthony said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 2:50 pm

    Some years ago, the American Symphony Orchestra League found it wise to change its name to League of American Orchestras.

  38. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 4:21 pm

    The one that apparently tripped up Dr. Carson — REO for "real estate owned" — has the additional feature of being opaque even if you are told what the initials stand for. Real estate owned by whom? Or does it mean the owned kind as contrasted to the unowned kind? Now, it may be a fair point that its industry jargon that someone in Carson's position ought to know, and I myself happen to know what it means because understanding that was at one point relevant to something I was working on professionally, but it really is incomprehensible in a vacuum without knowing a fuller definition that involves a lot more words than the three that give rise to the initialism.

  39. D.O. said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 11:42 pm

    NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) community relishes in cute acronyms. It probably began with COSY (correlation spectroscopy) and snowballed from there. There are plenty of bland initialisms like HSQC and CPMG, but there also such gems as NOESY, CHESS, DRAMA, and HORROR.

  40. Chas Belov said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 12:15 am

    @Chris: My understanding of a recursive acronym would be like GNU which is an acronym for GNU's Not Unix. A stretch would be munge, which is sometimes said to be an acronym for Munge Until No Good (except that I think I read once it's actually of Scottish origin).

  41. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 11:07 am

    Abigail: "Linguist" has more than one meaning.

  42. Kate Bunting said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 11:50 am

    Theophylact: ATM for a cash machine is in fact widely used in the UK.

    Incidentally, our annual test of a vehicle's roadworthiness is still called 'the MOT test' even though we haven't had a Ministry of Transport for many years; government departments are now 'Department of…'

  43. Steve said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 2:06 pm

    An example that seems particularly likely to lead to confusion are a pair of abbreviations arising from be same field, competitive public bargaining: RFQ (request for quotes) and RFQ (request for qualifications). A “request for quotes” asks vendors for quotes (prices) but does not ask for information about their qualifications, while the converse is true of a request for qualifications. (An RFQQ is made when you want both types of info, and of course RFQQ is unambiguous.)

  44. poftim said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 2:33 pm


    That's interesting about ATM being used in the UK now. It was rare 16 years ago when I left. "Cash machine" was pretty much universal then. (It's still what I use, though occasionally I'll use "bancomat" which I quite like, and is what they call them here in Romania.) I guess most people in the UK who use ATM wouldn't even know what it stands for.

    I remember (late 90s) the Young Conservatives in the UK rebranded themselves as Conservative Future United Kingdom, only to be sued by French Connection for using their acronym/abbreviation, even though the letters were in a different order.

  45. RP said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 5:53 pm

    Personally, I don't call them ATMs and don't recall anyone I know calling them that, but I don't know if that's representative. However, the other week I caught a broadcast of a Scottish Parliament debate on cash machines in rural areas, and virtually every MSP was saying either "ATM" or "ATM machine". I suppose it sounds more formal/technical than "cash machine", so that could be part of it.

  46. Ellen K. said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 7:09 pm

    There's a speech versus writing thing here. Many initialisms and acronyms have multiple meanings, as noted in the comments, but some have additional sound-alikes in speech. The original example was someone hearing REO as Oreo. PIN, which not usually ambiguous in writing, in speech sounds like pin and, in some communities, pen. I've encountered confusion with "pen" versus "PIN", so yes, it can happen.

  47. Monscampus said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 12:07 am


    Bad connotations of "fried"? What could these possibly be? I looked it up in an American slang dictionary. So it's what Brits refer to as tight or tipsy? It wouldn't really shock anyone into changing the company name. American usage never fails to confuse me, never having been to the land of the fried. (Sorry, couldn't resist).

  48. anon said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 2:19 am

    We live in RBS in Israel, but still bank with the RBS in Scotland, where we used to belong to the TSB bank, and spend Sunday afternoons in Queens Park Park [no apostrophes, afaik.]

  49. Philip Taylor said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 2:28 am

    Ellen K (speech v. writing) — I have recently become a reader for my local talking newspaper, and even during my first session I found myself making deliberate substitutions to help the listener know what was written. For example, the third word of one article that I read was "tech" — I automatically substituted "technology" as I felt that "tech" was too short to be easily recognisable in the absence of an pre-established context.

  50. Eyal Minsky-Fenick said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 6:45 am

    Bad as in unhealthy.

  51. Marc Sacks said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 2:46 pm

    While reading the Mueller report, I couldn't understand why the Trump campaign was involved with the Irish Republican Army. Eventually I figured out that IRA in this context stood for the (Russian) Internet Research Agency. No Irish need apply in this case.

  52. Steve Bacher said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 2:29 pm

    Re KFC: I guess K != Kentucky explains how they can get away with using Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" as the basis of the music for their commercials, though it leaves the impression of some New York ad exec saying "all those Southern states are the same anyhow."

    Re munge: It was originally spelled "mung" and stood for "Mash Until No Good", but for some unfathomable (to me) reason the G was given a soft pronunciation, and apparently the spelling changed to conform.

    The AFL (American Federation of Labor, as in AFL/CIO) became "A F-of-L" when spoken aloud a long time ago, presumably on account of the American Football League.

  53. Steve Bacher said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 3:07 pm

    Another self-contradicting initialism seen frequently on obituary-related discussion groups is "OT", which is usually a euphemism for "dead" (i.e. "on topic"), but can also mean "off topic" when a poster is apologizing in advance of, or criticized for, posting without obit-related content.

  54. ktschwarz said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 6:24 pm

    "Munge/Mash Until No Good" is a backronym. The original was either onomatopoetic "mung" for banging things together, or a Scottish/Yorkshire dialect form of "munch". See the Jargon File and discussion at Stack Exchange.

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