What do “NATO,” “TNT,” “sonar,” “AMC,” “AIDS,” “laser,” and “SEAL” have in common? OK, so it’s an easy question — obviously, they are all acronyms. In fact, though, that’s wrong! Most of the general populace is aware that these particular chunks of letters abbreviate strings of authentic English words with vowels and consonants and, sometimes, if we’re lucky, more than five characters. But fewer people realize that we can’t just lump them all under the acronym label. In fact, fewer than half of the abbreviations listed above are acronyms. Interestingly enough, there exist two other kinds of abbreviation that — like Will Smith’s eldest child, Trey — get much less publicity. These behind-the-scenes types of abbreviations are called initialisms and pseudo-blends.
The most well-acknowledged type of abbreviation is, of course, the almighty acronym. How a bigshot company or intergovernmental treaty alliance or disease or even a format for saving computer files can be named so perfectly that its initials form a beautiful word that rolls smoothly off the tongue is beyond my comprehension. Say it out loud. NATO. NAY-toe. NAY-toe! Flawless. Now another. GIF. Giff? Jiff? Either way, it’s a gorgeously crafted acronym deserving of the highest praise. Acronyms may be abbreviations, but they are pronounced like any other word — letter by letter, syllable by syllable.
Initialisms are exactly what their name suggests — a collection of letters pronounced by saying the name of each letter in the order in which it appears. In our initial list (see what I did there?) of abbreviations, the examples of initialisms include “TNT” and “AMC.” By the same method that we share the initials of our names, we pronounce initialisms. Pronouncing an initialism, such as the aforementioned “tee-en-tee,” as if it were a word would be just as ridiculous as if we were to pronounce the initials of people’s names like words. Would it make sense if Martin Luther King Jr. Day was no longer abbreviated as “em-el-kay” Day, but instead was suddenly referred to as some sort of bastardization of “Milk” Day? No, it wouldn’t. The mistake could lead you to believe that your friend was letting you know about a shindig in which guests profess their love for dairy in honor of National Milk Day on Jan. 11 rather than a citywide festival to celebrate an influential civil rights activist on the third Monday in January. Bottom line: Initialisms are not acronyms.
Pseudo-blends, on the other hand, are abbreviations in which a letter or more is added or subtracted, usually so that the abbreviation can be more easily pronounced like a word. For instance, “sonar” and “SEAL” are both pseudo-blends. “Sonar” stands for Sound Navigation and Ranging — a phrase that notably doesn’t contain a word starting with the letter “o.” This small detail justifies its classification as a pseudo-blend — the “o” after the first letter in “sound” is added to the abbreviation so that it is enunciable. The same applies to the “Sea, Air, Land” team in the U.S. armed forces, commonly known as the SEAL team.
There definitely could be some argument regarding whether certain words are acronyms, initialisms or pseudo-blends — my grandpa always insisted that “SUV” was an acronym while the rest of the family adamantly argued that our handy-dandy sport utility vehicle was in fact an “ess-you-vee.” I truly believe, however, that no matter how you classify your abbreviations, everyone can come together as a loving community and agree on one crucial idea — they definitely are damn convenient.