New frontiers in acronymity

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Recently I've been learning a lot of new letterisms — which I propose as a useful term covering both acronyms and initialisms, as well as some other cases within the general category of abbreviations. Sure, ACLU is pronounced as a sequence of four letter names, while NATO is pronounced as two syllables with no letter names involved. But there's variation: the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn is SAS, sometimes called "S A S" and sometimes "sass"; the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is sometimes "S E A S" and sometimes "sees". And there are mixed cases. In Penn's residential system, for example, HMOD is a designated role, standing for "Housing Manager On Duty",  and pronounced /ˈeʧˌmɐd/, i.e. the letter "H" followed by the syllable "mod".

And for examples learned though reading, it can be unclear what the pronunciation should be. I know that ACLU is not "a clue" because I've heard it pronounced many times — but what about SLIFE = "Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education", a letterism that I learned a few days ago? (It's new enough that the Acronym Finder page doesn't know about it yet…) Is SLIFE a single syllable rhyming with knife? or is it the letter S followed by "life"? or is it the sequence of five letter names "S L I F E"? I'm guessing that it's one of the first two, but I could be wrong.

Anyhow, many new (to me) letterisms have been coming from reporting on the war in Ukraine, specifically the names of  weapon systems, like GMLRS ("Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System"), DPICM ("Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition"), and HIMARS ("High Mobility Artillery Rocket System"). In some cases there are non-initial letters that seem to be aids to pronounceability, like the "I" in HIMARS. In other cases, there are additional word fragments that may help with learning and memory but don't seem to aid pronunciation, like ATACMS ("Army Tactical Missile System"). (Though I guess that one could be "attack M S"?)

The military has a long tradition of letterism creation, well established when I was drafted in 1969, and obviously flourishing in the decades since then. (And this reminds me that there's an additional category of letterisms, namely those that use the "military alphabet" letter names, like "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" for "WTF".)

Other government agencies have similar histories of proliferating letterisms, and private-sector organizations have joined in enthusiastically. Which leads me to wonder when it started, and how it developed.

The OED's citations for initialism go back to 1899:

1899   R. Thomas in Notes & Queries 9th Ser. III. 103/1   In my ‘Handbook’ I give an initialism of Mr. Watts's, ‘P. P. C. R.’
1928   H. M. Paull Lit. Ethics xvii. 189   All sorts of devices are adopted by the author, who does not wish his name to be known. He may..disguise it in various ways, using initials, asterisks, a reversed name, or one of the opposite sex,..respectively initialism, asterism, boustrophedon and pseudandry.

The citations for acronym go back only to the 1940s:

1940 W. Muir & E. Muir tr. L. Feuchtwanger Paris Gaz. iii. xlvii. 518 Pee-gee-enn. It's an acronym [Ger. Akronym], that's what it is. That's what they call words made up of initials.
1947 T. M. Pearce in Word Study May 8/2 The acronym DDT..trips pleasantly on the tongue and is already a household byword.

Under whatever name, letterisms were clearly in wide use early in the 20th century. The National Archives of Australia has a page on "Abbreviations used in World War I and World War II service records".

What about earlier centuries? Of course there's SPQR, in use from 80 BC — but was it an isolated usage, or part of a larger pattern? The Wikipedia article on HMS ("His or Her Majesty's Ship") says that "The first recorded use of the abbreviated form HMS was in 1789, in respect of HMS Phoenix", but again, it's not clear whether this was an isolated case or part of a trend. The OED's citations for R.I.P. go back to the 17th century, though the English version apparently doesn't start until 1809:

1613   J. Boys Expos. Festivall Epist. & Gospels 81   I finde in the records of antiquitie, that a Sepulchre is called requietorium, a bed of sacred rest and securitie, which Valerius Probus expressed in these letters, H.R.I.P. hic requiescet in pace.
1681   W. Bates Vitæ 441   Pro titulo, Tumulo inscribi cupio… Immortalitatem hic expectat. R. I. P.
1809 D. Hughson London VI. 371 R. I. P. (Requiescat in pace—Let him (or her) rest in peace) which initials are always used by the Catholics on their sepulchral monuments.

In contrast, the Wikipedia article on Grande Armée slang doesn't seem to include any letterisms, though I haven't checked the whole thing. This article on Civil War slang is also (I think) letterism-free. No doubt scanning historical sources like the Congressional Record and the Hansards would be informative.

That's all I have time for this morning, but perhaps some enterprising lexicographer has already charted the history?



  1. Annie Gottlieb said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 7:48 am

    "ATTACK 'EMS" of course

  2. Chris Button said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 8:25 am

    I like the approach to acronyms that puts them in sentence case when pronounced as words rather than letters. So we have Aids versus HIV. Covid-19 is far less ungainly than COVID-19.

    I also like how The Economist uses small caps to minimize the ungainliness when sentence case can't be used.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 8:33 am

    For an important non-military instance, some corpus researcher could track the rise of widespread non-specialist BrEng use of "W.C." (in the sense "water closet"), which managed to become a loan-initialism in a variety of other European languages in which a calque of the initialized English phrase would have yielded a different initialism in the target language.

    The use of the religious initialism D.O.M. is quite old.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 8:39 am

    Somewhat surprisingly to me, the google n-gram viewer suggests that it was not until the early 1970's that the combined usage of "U.S." and "U.S.A." was more frequent than the usage of "United States."

  5. mollymooly said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 9:16 am

    Acronyms have a long history in Hebrew, partially explained by its being written with an abjad rather than an alphabet, so you can insert vowel sounds to aid pronunciation. This does not explain why acronyms are much rarer in Arabic.

  6. mollymooly said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 9:21 am

    OTOH initialisms are rare relative to acronyms in Greek, because most Greek letters have multi syllable names. In English the only such is w, and it is notorious that www has triple the syllables of "world wide web", thus being an abbreviation only in writing.

    Is there any cross-language survey of acronym- initialism practice?

  7. Mark P said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 9:32 am

    I have heard www pronounced as dub-dub-dub, but I don’t know how often that’s used.

  8. Peter Taylor said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 9:34 am

    Roman inscriptions certainly abbreviated frequently, and it must have been assumed that the abbreviations would be understood. It's reasonable to suppose that some of them would have been common enough to qualify as letterisms.

    In searching for reference material on abbreviations in Latin inscriptions I turned up a compilation by Tom Elliott of NYU; the links are broken, but preserves copies. (If pages show errors, try changing the date with the top bar).

    What exactly counts may be subjective, but my feeling is that at least some of the listed abbreviations should count. As a couple of examples, consider MM for monumentum memoriae, or FFPP for flamen perpetuus.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 9:48 am

    "dub-dub-dub" is smart!

    Much better than sounding out 9 syllables. I hope it catches on.

  10. GH said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 10:07 am

    The history of acronyms and initialisms is quite interesting. Given how riddled ancient texts and inscriptions are with all sorts of abbreviations, you might expect that they would be common, but this does not seem to be the case.

    In addition to SPQR, we have INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum), used at least since the late Middle Ages. And aren't there some other examples from coins? But overall, it doesn't seem to have been a widespread convention until fairly recently.

    Perhaps there was rarely a need to abbreviate fixed, recurring multi-word phrases? However, such phrases would surely occur frequently in many spheres of literacy (e.g., legal, ecclesial, financial, academic, and with regards to titles and honors). Or perhaps it is somehow tied to the prevalence of printing and widespread literacy, while other types of abbreviations are more natural in handwriting and less dependent on consistent spelling.

    Read's oft-cited etymology of "OK" describes a fad for acronyms such as OFM ("our first men") first appearing in Boston newspapers from 1838.

  11. Thomas Lee Hutcheson said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 10:26 am

    Got to mention CINCUS for the Navy command before Pearl Harbor

  12. GH said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 11:41 am

    It occurs to me that the question is not so much whether people used this type of abbreviation in writing—the page found by Peter Taylor clearly shows that they did, at least in Latin—but whether they actually read it out as an acronym or initialism, or always "automatically" expanded it into the full phrase. (Compare how the contraction "Dr." is always expanded to "doctor," while "M.D." is usually read letter-by-letter in its abbreviated form, rarely as "Medicinae Doctor" or "Doctor of Medicine.")

    That is of course much more difficult to determine.

  13. DF said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 11:47 am

    Computer file extensions seem like a place where we do some additional training of this intuition (and often come to different conclusions from one another). Interesting is that the intuitions might be domain specific? When talking about cars, I’d say M-P-G, when talking about video files I’d say ‘empeg’.

  14. Scott P. said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 11:54 am

    Yes, use of initials and other abbreviations was widespread in Roman funerary monuments, official monuments, and coins. Just a few:

    PP: Pater Patriae
    TRIB POT: Tribunicia Potestas
    DN: Dominus Noster
    DDNN: Domini Nostri (and if you had three emperors, DDDNNN!!)
    D M: Dis Manibus
    STTL: Sit Terra Tibi Levis
    MP: Monumentum Posuit
    F: Filius/a

    Not to mention the widespread use of initials for praenomina, which were all standardized: C = Gaius, CN = Gnaeus, T = Titus, Ti = Tiberius, etc.

  15. Yuval said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 1:45 pm

    I've only ever heard "dub-dub-dub" as the name of the conference, since renamed The Web Conference.

  16. GeorgeW said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 1:54 pm

    When I see HIMARS, I wonder why they named it after donkeys (the meaning in Arabic – well, actually English pluralization of donkey).

  17. Theophylact said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 3:26 pm

    I've often thought that "6Us" (two syllables) could efficiently replace "three double-Us".

  18. Ethan said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 3:49 pm

    For what it's worth (FWIW) the World Wide Web Consortium uses the more pronounceable variant W3C, both to refer to itself directly and to label other things: "w3c schools", "w3c standards", "w3c meetings", …

  19. CuConnacht said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 4:26 pm

    I have wondered for a while when people first started pronouncing initialisms as words. (I started wondering in connection with all the bogus etymologies for words like posh, wog, pom, etc.) The earliest example that I can securely date is from October, 1913, when the American Society of Composers,
    authors, and Publishers, ASCAP, was founded in an upper room at Lüchow's restaurant in NYC. It was originally to have authors listed first, but a publisher called George Maxwell proposed reversing authors and composers: "Think what a great cable address the initials would make."

    A possible earlier one would be the British military organization called the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, FANY, founded 1909. There is a 1917 book called Nursing Adventures: A F.A.N.Y. in France. The fact that the article is "a" and not "an" strongly suggests that by then it was pronounced Fanny, not Eff Ay En Wye, but it may not have been so pronounced from the outset. (Although I suspect that the somewhat awkward name was chosen with the acronym in mind, like the later Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe.)

  20. Dara Connolly said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 4:30 pm

    For an English example, HMS dates back to the 18th century.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 6:23 pm

    GH's question is an excellent and pertinent one, and one I have no idea how to answer for the era before the ubiquity of audio recordings.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 6:27 pm

    Another of GH's points raises the question of the antiquity of the bogus-folk-etymology backronym. "Port out starboard home" for "posh" is one such instance, but "iron nails run in" for INRI is in Joyce's Ulysses, and I assume was not an invention of his but rather a schoolboy commonplace in his boyhood (even in a time/place when schoolboys pretty much all were having Latin beaten into them).

  23. Noam said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 7:43 pm

    In addition to single letter based abbreviations, the US military also uses ones that run together multi-letter word-initial fragments, like NAVWARSYSCOM, formerly SPAWAR, carelessly dropping arguably the most important word (information)

    The only non-DOD example I can think of is Comintern. Is it more frequent in other languages?

    [(myl) Japanese. See the wikipedia article on "Japanese abbreviated and contracted words".]

  24. John Swindle said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 8:18 pm

    The US Commander-in-Chief Pacific was CINCPAC (“sink pack”) and his naval subordinate CINCPACFLT (“sink pack fleet”) until someone noticed that the President was already commander-in-chief and we didn’t want to confuse the lads and lasses.

  25. Steve Morrison said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 8:28 pm

    I’ve sometimes wished we had retained the letter wynn, simply because it would be so much easier to pronounce than w.

  26. Rick Rubenstein said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 9:28 pm

    My preferred and unjustified reading is " 's life", ideally with a shrug emoji.

  27. Jon said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 1:49 am

    For many years I was enrolled in a pension scheme called PNISS, for Principal Non-Industrial Superannuation Scheme, and universally pronounced 'penis'.
    I always assumed it was artfully constructed to read that way, and wondered how they got away with it.
    So far as I know, there was no parallel Principal Industrial Superannuation Scheme.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 3:01 am

    Ethan — « the World Wide Web Consortium uses the more pronounceable variant W3C, both to refer to itself directly and to label other things: "w3c schools", "w3c standards", "w3c meetings", … ». The last two, but not the first. The so-called "w3schools" has no association whatsoever with the World Wide Web consortium, and is notorious as a purveyor of unreliable information. In the days when Google allowed one to filter out site, "" was one any results from which I never allowed to be displayed.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 3:17 am

    « the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn is SAS, sometimes called "S A S" and sometimes "sass"; the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is sometimes "S E A S" and sometimes "sees" ». Whereas to the best of my belief, the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) is invariably /səʊ æs/, never /es əʊ əʊ es/.

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 3:19 am

    Oops, that last part should (obviously) read /es əʊ eɪ es/.

  31. bks said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 5:32 am

    Theophylact, I have heard "hex-u" for www.

  32. GH said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 6:19 am


    Syllabic abbreviation is common in German, and should be familiar from "Gestapo" (Geheime Staatspolizei) and "Stasi" ((Ministerium für) Staatssicherheit). In English, it's also used in words like "sitcom"/"romcom," "hazmat," "satnav," "sci-fi," and "Tex-Mex," and in names like "Interpol," "Tribeca," "FedEx," and "Lib Dems."

    "Covid" is also a (mostly) syllabic abbreviation, from Coronavirus disease.

  33. ktschwarz said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 10:17 am

    "iron nails run in" for INRI

    According to Joycean scholarship, no hard evidence for this has yet been found that antedates Ulysses, but nobody believes Joyce invented it; there have been people in recent times saying they used to hear that one in their childhood back in the 1930s-1950s.

    For folk-etymologies of IHS as "I have sinned / I have suffered", there is evidence in print going back to at least the 1880s. Expansions as "Iesus Hominum Salvator", or claims that it comes from "In Hoc Signo", also go back a ways. (In fact it's simply short for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in Greek, IESOUS in Latin letters.)

  34. Jerry Packard said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 10:25 am

    My Dad belonged to SPEBSQSA, and about half the time he spoke all 8 letters, and half the time he said it with the two-syllable 'speb-squa'.

  35. Scott P. said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 10:28 am

    The only non-DOD example I can think of is Comintern. Is it more frequent in other languages?

    It was extremely common in the USSR. Some examples:


  36. Howard Ross said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 5:18 pm

    In the early days of the Web, when it was mostly populated by techies, dub-dub-dub was a handy abbreviation. As the Web developed the www. prefix on a URL became standard and presumed. Now nearly no one includes it when speaking or writing the UR although it is there, so it seems the dub-dub-dub has been lost. URL was briefly pronounced "erl".

  37. zafrom said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 5:32 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer, June 4, 2022 @ 6:23 pm

    Pronunciations before ubiquity reminded me of an exchange from an 1889 report of a tontine, "The Wrong Box" by Stevenson and Osbourne…

    ‘And that would be nothing,’ continued Mr Dickson sternly, ‘but I wish—I wish from my heart, sir, I could say that Mr Thomas’s hands were clean. He has no excuse; for he was engaged at the time—and is still engaged—to the belle of Constantinople, Ga. My friend’s conduct was unworthy of the brutes that perish.’

    ‘Ga.?’ repeated Gideon enquiringly.

    ‘A contraction in current use,’ said Michael. ‘Ga. for Georgia, in The same way as Co. for Company.’

    ‘I was aware it was sometimes so written,’ returned the barrister, ‘but not that it was so pronounced.’

  38. Julian said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 6:47 pm

    'Letterism' – brilliant! I'm in!
    I know that 'acronym' and 'initialism' are meant to refer to 'pronounced as one word' or 'pronounced as letters' (or vice versa?) – but I've never been able to remember which is which.
    Some style gurus and manuals are really keen on maintaining the distinction – which is hilarious, because in writing it's completely irrelevant.

  39. Julian said,

    June 5, 2022 @ 6:51 pm

    I did some work for an organisation that has a SCBEWC committee. They managed to pronounce that as one word. Don't ask me to remember how.

  40. mollymooly said,

    June 6, 2022 @ 4:45 am

    "in writing it's completely irrelevant" — not if the style guide mandates all-caps for proper nouns such are initialisms but not for acronyms. There's also the question of whether to write "a URL" or "an URL", "a SAS operation" or "an SAS operation"

  41. Noam said,

    June 6, 2022 @ 6:46 am

    As to “a” vs “at” – I spent most of my life believing that you’re always supposed to use the the one that’s consistent with the unabbreviated words, but I recently discovered that at least some style guides do use the one that’s consistent with the way the reader is likely (or expected by the writer) to say the abbreviated form.

    P.S. thanks for the pointers to examples in other languages

  42. Adam S Levine said,

    June 6, 2022 @ 8:00 am

    There are lots of prominent rabbis from the medieval through modern periods who are almost exclusively known by pronunciations of their Hebrew initials – sometimes preceded in English by "the". E.g. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman), the Maharal of Prague (Moreinu HaRav Loew – our teacher Rabbi (Judah) Loew), the Gra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu), and dozens more. It would be as if we referred to President Kennedy as "Jofk" or something. There are also tons of initialisms through rabbinic literature for technical terms and common phrases (analogous to i.e., e.g., BTW, and so on), but the reader is expected to know what they stand for and pronounce them in full.

  43. Tim Leonard said,

    June 6, 2022 @ 10:13 am

    Would a construction like NAVWARSYSCOM simply be a portmanteau if it weren't capitalized? Or does a portmanteau necessarily have only two parts?

  44. Terry K. said,

    June 6, 2022 @ 12:47 pm

    The one result for "slife" in that's SLIFE rather then the surname Slife pronounces it as one syllable (like the surname).

    (Youglish gives pronunciation examples for a searched word via YouTube videos>)

  45. Roly H said,

    June 7, 2022 @ 5:14 am

    And a letrterism can change form with language; took me a while to realize that a Portuguese speaker using the noun 'ira' was referring to the IRA, the Irish Republican Army

  46. Alyssa said,

    June 7, 2022 @ 11:09 am

    Some pure speculation – letterisms seem like a phenomenon of written language. In spoken language it's much more natural to abbreviate by dropping syllables, like in "infosec" for "information security". I imagine they arise as a spelling convenience in writing, and then become pronounced only when seen in written form enough to be familiar to everyone.

  47. Philip Taylor said,

    June 7, 2022 @ 3:07 pm

    « In spoken language it's much more natural to abbreviate by dropping syllables, like in "infosec" for "information security" ». I'm not convinced that this is universally true, or at least not universally true for all speakers. For myself, I tend to abhor what I regard as "unnecessary" syllable-dropping abbreviations such as "tech" for technology, "tele" for "television" or "intel" for "intelligence", yet have no compunctions whatsoever about using initialisms such as "IT" for "information technology", "the IRA" for "the Irish Republican Army" or "the GPO" for "the General Post Office".

  48. Amanda Adams said,

    June 7, 2022 @ 6:53 pm

    @ktschwarz – here we have found ourselves fighting people who had been taught that IHS – initials vastly common on lintel inscriptions, & ubiquitous in churches, "means" "Jesus Hijo Salvador".

  49. Chas Belov said,

    June 7, 2022 @ 11:52 pm

    @Mark P: I can't speak for how common "dub dub dub" is for "www" but Apple's three-minute animation recapping today's World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) initialized it as "dub dub dee see"

  50. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 9, 2022 @ 1:03 pm

    "Tech" may have started out as an abbreviation of "technology", but to me at least they're not fully synonymous anymore. I'd be happy to call my employer a "technology firm", but it's not a "tech firm" – that's Google and the like.

  51. Philip Taylor said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 3:11 am

    Well, if you can tell me how the meaning of "tech" differs from the meaning of "technology", Andreas, I would be most grateful (and better informed !).

  52. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 9:07 am

    I won't claim anyone else have necessarily intuited the same distinction as I have, but to me "tech" is essentially that subset of "technology" that's to do with the Internet. When the newspapers write about "tech firms", they're generally thinking of Googe and Apple, not Volkswagen or Lockheed Martin. Yet the latter two certainly do technology.

  53. Philip Taylor said,

    June 11, 2022 @ 1:47 pm

    Well, that is certainly an interesting hypothesis, but the Google ngram viewer, asked about "high tech" (the phrase with which I am most familiar that includes the word "tech") return far more hits that are not concerned with the Internet than it does those that are …

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