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Why Do We Use Acronyms and Abbreviations?

Updated on April 9, 2010

Scrabble

Photo Credit: alleyrose18  flickr.com
Photo Credit: alleyrose18 flickr.com

What are acronyms and abbreviations?
Simply stated, an abbreviation is any shortened form of a word or phrase and an acronym is a form of an abbreviation. In fact, there are three forms of abbreviation. First, there is the acronym. It is a word formed from the initial parts of a name and can be letters or syllables. For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is commonly known as NATO which is pronounced “nay toe” We are more familiar with sonar than we are with sound navigation and ranging. The word “acronym” was created by Bell Laboratories in 1943.

Then there is the initialism. It is formed by combining the first letters in a name or expression and each letter is pronounced separately. For example, the National Broadcasting Company is known as NBC. AZ would be the initialism for Arizona.

Finally, there are truncations. In this form of abbreviation, a word is shortened to its first syllable or few letters, for example Tues. is Tuesday and info is information.

The Growth of YABA-compatible Words (Yet Another Bloody Acronym)
Acronyms and abbreviations have been around almost as long as there have been written language. Almost every written language uses abbreviations, including Chinese, Hebrew and Swahili. For example, the official name of the Roman Empire was Senatus Populusque Romanus. The ancient Romans used the abbreviation SPQR. The Latin phrase ante meridiem (before noon) became AM.

In the late 1800’s, businesses began abbreviating their company names in writing to fit into places where space was limited, for example, on a barrel or crate, small print newspapers and railroad cars. For example the National Biscuit Company became NABISCO.

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that abbreviations (in all forms) became popular and now, in the 21st century, abbreviation use has reached epidemic proportions. In early 2010,Acronym Finder had more than 4,500,000 “approved” acronyms and other abbreviations in its database and had several hundred more waiting for review and approval.

The main reason we use abbreviations, including acronyms, is for convenience. The use of multiple word names favored by government agencies, science and high technology has led to the demand for shorter simpler title; for example Comlog Westpac is short for Commander, Logistic Group, Western Pacific a department of the U.S. Navy and WSIPC is the short name for the Washington School Information Processing Cooperative.

Some businesses may use abbreviations in an attempt to retain their corporate identity while moving away from less desirable or old images. Kentucky Fried Chicken now promotes itself as KFC in an attempt to downplay the “deep fried” food image and its negative connotations. Abbreviations also help in international business. IBM (International Business Machines) names its foreign operations using IBM and the country or region where it is located, such as IBM France.

Jargon and Buzzwords
Jargon and buzzwords are technical or occupational term developed to help specialists in a specific industry or business communicate quickly and simply with one another. Unfortunately, jargon and buzzwords tend to escape the confines of the narrow fields to which they apply and into our everyday language. People use buzzwords to appear cool, “in the know” or to deliberately confuse an issue.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, in a 2007 60 Minutes interview, told correspondent Leslie Stahl, that he would deliberate use economic buzzwords when people asked him silly questions. But, buzzwords and jargon also caused him some problems. His wife, NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell, claims that he had to propose to her three (3) times before she understood that he was asking her to marry him. Oops!

Electronic Communications
Electronic communication has been a particularly fertile field for abbreviations. Systems like Twitter and text messaging limit the length of a message to only 140 – 160 characters. SO, writers have no choice but to use abbreviations.

Abbreviations and the Evolution of Language
Some language purists decry the growing use of abbreviations, claiming that it corrupts the language and if one it not familiar with the meaning of various abbreviations and acronyms, communication can be confusing. But, over time language changes and evolves in ways that reflects the changing world around us and the growth of abbreviations reflects the changes in our society and technology.

By way of illustration, Geoffrey Chaucer was a native “English speaker” who wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century. He wrote “I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe.” Yes, it is written in English. But the language has evolved over the last 600 years. In today’s English, Chaucer wrote “I know enough, in the evening and in the morning.”

 

This article is part of dchinn1’s Bibelot Spot series. A bibelot is a small object of curiosity, in this case, knowledge.

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    • profile image

      joe 2 years ago

      people are really stupid for using these and it's sad that the older generation don't know how to read or use these i grew up around it when dial up was around and i still don't know how to use them

    • profile image

      Myranda 6 years ago

      Eh.... ive read better

    • profile image

      jessica 6 years ago

      i think this was very useful. thankyou very much, im learning about this in school on spoken language. but i don't think it answered my question on why we use abbreviations in texting!

    • leni sands profile image

      Leni Sands 7 years ago from UK

      This is a really useful, well written hub, David Crystal, himself, couldn't have put it better. I've voted this up, bookmarked it and pressed the useful button. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

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