Etymology Usage

Why doesn’t the NY Times capitalize AIPAC?

Q: I see that AIPAC is referred to as Aipac in the NYT (or perhaps NYt). Please help me understand this. Are we now going to see the U.s., the F.b.i., and Nato?

A: First, let’s sort out those abbreviations. An abbreviation that’s spoken as a word (like NATO) is called an “acronym”; an abbreviation that’s spoken as letters (like FBI) is called an “initialism.”

Usage writers generally note this distinction, but many people use the term “acronym” for an initialism, and some dictionaries accept the usage. We’ll have more to say about this later.

The New York Times’s practice is to print acronyms of proper names entirely in capitals if they have four letters or fewer: NATO, NASA, PIN, SALT. With longer acronyms, only the first letter is capitalized: Unesco, Nascar, Unicef, Nasdaq, and so on.

That’s why the Times capitalizes only the first letter of Aipac, the acronym for the American Israel Political Action Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group.

However, many publications—the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Christian Science Monitor, among them—disagree and prefer AIPAC.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is widely used in book publishing, generally prefers the all-capital form unless the term is listed otherwise in standard dictionaries.

Chicago would consider an acronym like “radar” an exception, since it’s all-lowercase in dictionaries (it stands for “radio detection and ranging”).

Getting back to your question, initialisms are supposed to be all-cap in Times style, and we don’t think you’ll be seeing U.s. or F.b.i. in the paper any time soon. If you do, consider it a typo.

As we said above, usage authorities generally make a distinction between the terms “acronym” and “initialism.”

We’re among those who make the distinction. And so is Bryan A. Garner, who writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) about “the technical differences between the two types of abbreviated names.”

R. W. Burchfield, in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), agrees that the “test of a true acronym is often assumed to be that it should be pronounceable as a word.”

But Burchfield writes that this use of the term “is not widely known to the general public” and it’s “often applied to abbreviations that are familiar but are not pronounceable as words.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) considers the use of the term “acronym” for an initialism a “usage problem.”

A usage note in American Heritage says the distinction between the two terms “has some virtue in precision,” but it acknowledges that the distinction “may be lost on many people.”

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that the term “acronym” is a relative newcomer in English, showing up in the early 1940s.

Interestingly, “acronym” referred to what we now consider an “initialism” when it first entered English in 1940, according to OED citations. But by 1943, it was being used as well for abbreviations pronounced as words.

The dictionary says the term was adapted from the German akronym, which the OED dates to “1921 or earlier.”

The citations in the OED suggest that the English term “acronym” has been used steadily since the early 1940s for an abbreviation spoken as a word as well as one spoken as letters. Here are a couple of recent examples:

“The acronym TSS—Tout Sauf Sarkozy (‘Anything But Sarkozy’).” The Atlantic, June  2008.

“Turning tea into an acronym for Taxed Enough Already, demonstrators were expected to attend more than 750 rallies to protest government spending.” The New York Times, April 16, 2009.

(We assume the Times writer would have used all caps, TEA, for the actual acronym.)

Yes, there’s a case to be made for using “acronym” loosely. But for now we’ll continue to observe the distinction in our writing, while making allowances for the many people who are unaware of it.

We’ve written before on the blog about acronyms and initialisms. You might find the postings helpful.

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