Anglopolis: Acronyms

Los acrónimos en inglés marcan tendencia global, pero sobre todo esconden un universo de significado con connotaciones lingüísticas, históricas y hasta ideológicas.

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They’re quick to say but can be puzzling… and not just for non-native speakers. Acronyms are abbreviations made from initial letters, and English, especially American English, is full of them. But use too many and the result can be OTT (Over The Top).

Spell it out?

There are two main groups of acronyms. The most common type, including acronyms such as UK (United Kingdom), BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and UN (United Nations) are also called initialisms. Each initial letter is pronounced individually. The second main type, including acronyms such as FAQ (Frequently Asked Question), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) and POTUS (President of The United States) are pronounced as words. Usually - like FAQ, scuba and POTUS - this second type of acronym has a vowel in the middle, making it more natural to say them as words, but there is no fixed rule. While the virus HIV is spelled out as H-I-V, AIDS is pronounced ‘aids.’ VIP (Very Important Person) is pronounced as separate letters in English but has become a word, ‘vip’, in other languages.


Surely the world’s most recognizable acronym, ‘OK’, is also its most flexible, working as an adjective, adverb, noun, verb and general filler. It can be spelled either ‘OK‘ or ‘okay’ and there is a whole range of theories about its etymology. One attractive but improbable suggestion is that OK derives from the Scots, Och aye, signaling agreement. A more generally accepted explanation is that ‘OK’ began life in the US in the 1830s as an acronym of ‘orl korrekt’, a humorous, phonetic spelling of all correct.

Latin legacy

The Romans were particularly keen on acronyms. SPQR, meaning in Latin Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (The Senate and People of Rome) was famously written all over Rome, from inscriptions on buildings to the flags they carried into battle. When Roman soldiers crucified Jesus, they carefully labelled his cross with the acronym ‘INRI Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum’ (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews).

English still uses quite a lot of Latin acronyms in writing: i.e. (id est, ‘that is’) is written before giving additional explanation, i.e. before saying something in different words. If you want to add an extra idea at the end of a letter or email you could use the acronym ‘PS’ before adding a postscript and ‘PPS before adding a second extra idea.

The acronym NB (nota bene, ‘note well’) signals that important information is coming up next. But the most common Latin acronym is, of course, e.g. (exempli gratia, ‘for example’.) NB, although most acronyms use capital letters, e.g. and i.e. do not. 

Senseless repetition

Often acronyms become so familiar that we forget what the initial letters stand for. For example, PIN (pronounced as a word, ‘pin’) means Personal Identification Number, the kind used in cash machines. So saying, “I’ve forgotten my PIN number,” (as I quite often do) is a senseless repetition. And while we’re on the subject of cash machines, Americans call them ‘ATMs’ (Automated Teller Machines), or sometimes, I’m afraid to say, ‘ATM Machines.’


Sometimes acronyms can be used to express a sensitive topic obliquely. Telling someone they have ‘BO’ (body odour) isn’t easy but it’s not as hard as saying they stink of sweat. And acronyms mean we can use obscene language without actually using it, for example: WTF (What The Fuck), this project is a total SNAFU (situation normal: all fucked up). As texting increasingly becomes the communication mode of choice, we should probably get familiar with WTF-type initialisms such as ‘OMG’ (Oh My God) and ‘TMI‘ (Too Much Information) ‘ASAP’ (As Soon As Possible). But that’s a whole other story… 

PS: The letters of acronyms in English may be in a different order from what you’re used to. The EU (European Union) is the UE in many European languages; NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) are ONGs.

PPS: If you receive an invitation with the acronym RSVP at the end you need to reply. It’s from the French: Répondez S'il Vous Plaît.

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