September 07, 2006

Orphan initialisms

While relaying a report on The University of Manchester's name a little while ago, I mentioned three initialisms that people now staunchly maintain DO NOT STAND FOR ANYTHING (despite their history, of course): UMIST (one of the predecessors of Manchester as we know it today), Texas A&M, and SRI International.  Right after that, I wondered out loud on the ADS-L if there was a name for these things.  I suggested the lame term opacinym (for terms that had become "opacified by institutional fiat").  But now we have a much better candidate, orphan initialism (the poor thing has lost its parents), and a runner-up, empty initialism.

Orphan initialism comes from Dan Puckett of the San Antonio Express-News, who was moved to insert an entry into the style book of his previous employer, the St. Petersburg Times, about these annoying abbreviations.  This was in mid-2005, and the entry read:

Orphan initialisms

Many initialisms no longer stand for anything. If one has changed recently, inserting the former full name is a good idea: "the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons."

Some of the most common:

AAA: Formerly the American Automobile Association.
AARP: Formerly the American Association of Retired Persons.
ACT Assessment: Formerly the American College Test.
AT&T: Formerly American Telephone & Telegraph Co.
FFA: Formerly Future Farmers of America.
KFC: Formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken.
SAT: Formerly Scholastic Assessment Test, and before that, Scholastic Aptitude Test.

So nice to have a good crunchalicious term.  A Golden Terminology Palm to Dan.

Soon after, orphan acronym appeared on the net (for what are in fact initialisms, with the names of the letters pronounced separately, rather than the whole thing being pronounced as a solid word, as radar and scuba are; NARAL is an actual orphan acronym):

Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Do the Hustle

You can count me as one of those people who've never forgiven AMC -- it used to stand for "American Movie Classics"; now it's an orphan acronym, like KFC -- for adding commercials and dropping its former emphasis on classic movies.

posted by John @ 1:36 PM

A Silver Terminology Palm to John of

No doubt claimants will appear to demand their awards for earlier uses of the term, but I'm sticking with Dan, because he got to me first.

On ADS-L (9/6/06), Ben Zimmer then supplied two links to net discussions of the phenomenon (without a label), on Slate and Snopes, and added ESPN and the acronym IHOP to the list of examples.  There are, of course, many more examples, and probably more public discussions of orphans; they're the sort of thing that people notice.

Meanwhile, the term empty acronym (for what should be empty initialism, if we're being sticklers) has gotten some play.  Another Silver Terminology Palm for:

Since the mid-1990s, SAT has been an empty acronym. (Daily Californian, 7/29/03)

Other mentions of "empty acronyms" refer to acronyms or initialisms that aren't orphans, because they never had parents, never were abbreviations: a t-shirt saying "I.C.O.N.", which truly DIDN'T stand for anything (link), except maybe the word icon, and "NRG" (link), which is just a way of spelling energy (though, entertainingly, there seems to be a company called "NRG Energy, Inc." -- is there an echo in here?).

What makes orphan initialisms so annoying is that they LOOK like they ought to have calculable content, but are presented as just a string of letters.  They frustrate the natural human desire to find compositional meaning in things that so ostentatiously look as if they should have one. 

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 7, 2006 02:43 AM