Acronym Morph: What’s an Editor to Do?

Sometimes we see things out of the corner of our eye. Then we think, “Did I really see that?” Lately, I’ve had that experience with certain acronyms morphing from all capital letters (eg, UNESCO) to initial capital letters (Unesco).

When acronyms drop their periods, I take it in without a second thought—it looks cleaner to me, someone used to the omission of periods in most acronyms from years of editing using the AMA Manual of Style. But this move from all-caps to only an initial cap jarred me, once I stopped and looked it in the eye. I was puzzled, too, by the pattern (or lack of one) behind this shift.

A little investigation seemed in order. The AMA Manual of Style distinguishes between acronyms and initialisms1 and indicates that periods are usually not used with them. But there is no mention of an all-cap or initial-cap style or preference. The Chicago Manual of Style2 notes that “Usage rather than logic determines whether abbreviations other than those standing for proper names are given in upper- or lowercase letters. Noun forms are usually uppercase (HIV, VP), adverbial forms lowercase (rpm, mpg). Note also that acronyms, especially those of five or more letters, tend to become lowercase with frequent use (NAFTA/Nafta, WASP/Wasp).” Special mention of this morph is made in discussing associations and the like: “Whether acronyms or initialisms…, such abbreviations appear in full capitals and without periods. Acronyms of five letters or more may be spelled with only an initial capital….” Chicago cites ERISA/Erisa (Employment Retirement Income Security Act) as an example.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe there isn’t logic but maybe there is a pattern. Editors like both.

The Associated Press Stylebook3 advises, with regard to acronyms, “Use only an initial cap and then lowercase for acronyms of more than six letters, unless listed otherwise in this Stylebook or Webster’s New World College Dictionary.” So, it does seem to be related to length. How long is long enough to trigger this style change—5 letters? 6 letters?

This set me to thinking about things that began as acronyms and then morphed even further than becoming “proper nouns,” with an initial cap, to becoming “regular” words, all lowercase, as if they had never worn the guise of an acronym at all. The first such word that came to my mind was posh because I loved knowing that this word began as P.O.S.H. to stand for “port out, starboard home,” the location of the most expensive berths on luxury liners. However, I was chagrined to read in The Phrase Finder4 that this story was probably “dreamed up retrospectively to match an existing meaning.” It therefore is not an acronym but a backronym (a “reverse acronym,” a word or phrase constructed after the fact to make an existing word or words into an acronym”5).

What are other such words that we use as if they were fresh words but that began life as acronyms? I knew about snafu (“situation normal, all f—ed up”), which is so often used that most people don’t even know it had an earlier existence. Another one that, for some reason, I think most people do realize used to stand for something is scuba (“self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”). One that I see every day in reading medical journals that I hadn’t known started as an acronym is laser (“light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”). Wonderful. Finding out the history of each of these acronyms is like opening a small treasure chest. Then there’s a host of others that all joined the language in the 1980s: yuppie (“young urban professional” or “young upwardly mobile professional”), buppie (“black urban professional”), guppie (“gay urban professional”), dink (“double income, no kids”). This is fun.

Some acronyms come from other languages: flak (from German: Fliegerabwehrkanonen, from Flieger flyer + Abwehr defense + Kanonen cannons).6 Some company names began as acronyms: Qantas began as QANTAS (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services).

Getting back to the yen for logic and a pattern, with words there is a pattern that editors often chart, like physicians charting a patient’s temperature in a hospital record…watching to see when the temperature is right for them to jump in. Here the pattern is to begin with 2 separate words, then link them with a hyphen, then join them completely.

breast feeding→breast-feeding→breastfeeding

With acronyms it seems to be


With, sometimes, a brief detour to unesco.

For those of us who care about these details, we each need to decide (with words, with capital letters) when—watching the temperature—it’s time to jump in. For medical journals, vis-à-vis this acronym morph, we are going to continue to monitor the temperature before deciding to jump in for a swim.

Acronyms, backronyms. Words take us on a wonderful journey. Sometimes they are a journey in themselves.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

1. Iverson C, Flanagin A, Christiansen S, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007:441-442.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2003:559.

3. Christian D, Jacobsen S, Minthorn D, eds. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. Philadelphia, PA: Perseus Basic Books; 2009:2.

4. POSH. The Phrase Finder. Accessed June 4, 2012.

5. Backronym. Wikipedia. Accessed June 4, 2012.

6. Mish FC, ed in chief. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:475.

3 thoughts on “Acronym Morph: What’s an Editor to Do?

  1. I wonder if they are a little ahead of us “across the pond.” I was somewhat startled one day when, while perusing the BBC website, I saw Nasa used in a story on space shuttles.

  2. I’m a British translator living and working in Italy; I am translating a text about UNESCO World Heritage Sites and automatically used capital letters, however I see that other people writing about the same subject use Unesco.
    I came across this page while checking which was correct and found it interesting and useful.

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