Shortenings: Initialism

Initialism has become well established within the modern English Language. "It is particularly popular in professional jargons (e.g. politics, military, economy, computer sciences) [and] can be subdivided into the two classes of acronoyms and alphabetisms. In both cases, a new term is formed from the initial letters of several words or, in the case of compounds, component parts of words." (Kortmann 2005, 106)

As Kortmann mentions above, the inital letters are combined to create a new term. While acronyms are perceived and pronounced as independent words, alphabetisms are pronounced letter by letter.

In many texts, initialism is used as a synonym of alphabetism, which may be influenced by the fact that each initial is pronounced independently.

Furthermore, there are terms which combine alphabetisms and acronyms. Take a word like JPEG: the initial J is pronounced separately from the later unit PEG, which is read as one word.


Acronyms are shortenings formed from the initial letters of a series of words. These "letter words" are pronounced as one word, like UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization) and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

In times of a "liquid modernity", with an ever increasing number of scientific, political, military and cultural networks, acronyms are ubiquitous: they are easily retrieved and memorized.

After acronyms have been fully lexicalized, they are often no longer recognized as a form abbreviation.

Look at the following examples:

  • laser (Lightwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation)
  • radar (RAdio Detecting And Ranging)
  • BASIC (Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code)
  • ERASMUS (EuRopean Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students)
  • UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Endowment Fund)
  • START (STrategic Arms Reduction Talks)
  • dink(y) (Double Income No Kids)

(honestly: did you know that laser is "only" an acronym?)


can you find the mistake in the title?

Similar to acronyms but pronounced as a sequence of single letters are alphabetisms such as MTV, HBO or CNN. Usually, an initialism cannot be pronounced easily as a word, so each letter is sounded out.

Here, a few examples:

  • PC (Personal Computer, but also Political Correctness)
  • LA (Los Angeles)
  • VIP (Very Important Person)
  • HBO (Home Box Office)
  • IPA (International Phonetic Association/Alphabet)

As you can see, initialisms are very common in particular subject areas and are often only to be found in special dictionaries.