What the FAQ?

There’s and old saying that the computing industry is confusing mass of TLAs (Three-Letter Acronyms) and ETLAs (Extended Three-Letter Acronyms – terms formed of four, five, six or more letters), but that’s actually wrong. Most of them are abbreviations.

People use the terms acronym and abbreviation interchangeably, but there is a difference. Abbreviations are simply shortened forms of full words, while acronyms contain the initial letters of a phrase that forms a new word such as “scuba” (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), or “radar” (RAdio Detection And Ranging), or “laser” (Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation).

There’s also a misconception that abbreviations are ALWAYS CAPITALISED. They’re not. Consider Dr. (for “Doctor”), St. (for “Street” or “Saint”), vs (for “versus”), and cm (for centimetre”).

So technically, an acronym must spell out another word while an abbreviation is simply a shortened form of a longer word. But some abbreviations get pronounced as their longer form – no one says “M R” for “Mr.” (“mister”) or “A V E” for “Ave.” (“avenue”) – while others do get pronounced. That form of abbreviation is called an initialism. Things like the NBA (National Basketball Association), and HMS (His / Her Majesty’s Ship), and PDF (Portable Document Format).

If all that seems straightforward, there’s yet another class of acronym/abbreviation that, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t yet have a name. They’re sort of transitional initialisms, like FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions). Some people pronounce each letter while others simply treat it as a whole word. “Read the FAQ” is different from “Read the faq”.

UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) is another transitional initialism. Some pronounce each letter, others pronounce it as a word (“yoo-fo”). Welcome to the English language!

But going back to the computer industry, yes, it is full of unnecessary TLAs and ETLAs. I once had an IBM engineer point out that the AMD inside a PC was faulty. “The AMD?” I asked. “What’s that?” He pointed it out; “The Air Movement Device.” Non-techies would have used a simpler, three-letter, non-abbreviation and called it a “fan”.

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