The Grammarphobia Blog

Some initial thoughts

Q: I live in acronym-crazy NYC (SoHo, Dumbo, TriBeCa, and so on). But what about abbreviations that are pronounced as letters, not words (NYC, for example). I’ve coined a word for them: “abbrevonym.” I look forward to your response.

A: We also like “abbrevonym,” a word that’s been suggested now and then by language types. But unfortunately, there’s already a word for this: “initialism.”

An initialism is an abbreviation that’s spoken as letters, like “FBI,” “PTA,” “NAACP,” and “NCAA.” Here’s a more detailed definition, courtesy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.):

“An abbreviation consisting of the first letter or letters of words in a phrase (for example, IRS for Internal Revenue Service), syllables or components of a word (TNT for trinitrotoluene), or a combination of words and syllables (ESP for extrasensory perception) and pronounced by spelling out the letters one by one rather than as a solid word.”

An acronym, on the other hand, is usually defined as an abbreviation that’s spoken as a word, like “radar” ( for “radio detection and ranging”), “laser” (“light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation”), and “NATO” (“North Atlantic Treaty Organization”).

We had a posting on the blog a couple of years ago about acronyms and initialisms

The New York neighborhoods you mention are indeed examples of acronyms, because they’re spoken as words.

The craze for geographical acronyms in the city began with SoHo (for “south of Houston”), moved on to TriBeCa (“triangle below Canal”), and now includes such whimsies as NoHo (“north of Houston”), Dumbo (“down under Manhattan Bridge overpass”), NoLIta (“north of Little Italy”), and even NoMad (“north of Madison Square Park”). Some have suggested that last one should instead be known as SoMa (“south of Macy’s”).

We’ve also written about the “h” in “SoHo”—that is, why “Houston” is pronounced HEW-ston in Texas but HOW-ston in New York.

As for what to call an abbreviation spoken in letters, frankly we prefer “abbrevonym” to the boring “initialism.” Who knows? It could catch on. Until then, though, we’ll stick with the old stick-in-the-mud.

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