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The Rise of Initialisms: A Guide to Understanding These Common Abbreviations

In today's fast-paced world, abbreviations have become an essential part of communication, allowing information to be conveyed quickly and conveniently. One type of abbreviation that is prevalent in technology and online communication is initialisms.

What are Initialisms?

An initialism is a shortened version of a phrase created by using the first letters of each word. Unlike acronyms, initialisms are pronounced letter by letter, rather than as a complete word.

Initially, in the 19th century, initialisms were referred to as alphabetic abbreviations and were used as a means of anonymity by authors. However, they have since become widely used in everyday language and popular culture.

Examples of Initialisms

Initialisms can be formed from brand names and common phrases. For instance, BBC stands for British Broadcasting Corporation, while DVD stands for Digital Video Disc or Digital Versatile Disc. In the world of technology, CD stands for Compact Disc. Moreover, initialisms have also become an integral part of online communication, with popular examples such as LOL (Laughing Out Loud) and ASAP (As Soon As Possible).

Common Initialisms Used in Online Texting

  • ROFL - Rolling on Floor Laughing
  • LMK - Let Me Know
  • ASAP - As Soon As Possible
  • FYI - For Your Information
  • IRL - In Real Life
  • FB - Facebook
  • MSG - Message
  • TTYL - Talk To You Later
  • IMO - In My Opinion
  • IMHO - In My Humble Opinion / In My Honest Opinion
  • OMG - Oh My Gosh

Initialisms have become an integral part of online communication, and their usage has become widespread in everyday language.

Initialisms in Everyday Language

In everyday language, initialisms are used to shorten common phrases for convenience. For example, ATM stands for Automated Teller Machine, BRB stands for Be Right Back and HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language.

For instance, if Terry, a web designer, needs money, he might take a break from work to go to the ATM across the road. When he returns, he might find a note from a co-worker that says 'BRB'. Terry would then resume work and begin coding HTML for their next project.

The Difference between Acronyms and Initialisms

Acronyms and initialisms are both forms of abbreviations, but they have distinct differences. An acronym is an abbreviation formed by using the initial letters of a group of words and is pronounced as a word. For instance, NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

On the other hand, an initialism is a set of initials representing a name, company, or group, and cannot be pronounced as a word. Examples include CNN (Cable News Network), DVD, and OMG.

Fascinating Histories of Initialisms

Some initialisms have intriguing histories, with two of the most debated ones being 'OK' and 'SOS'.


The initialism OK is universally understood to mean 'accepted', 'yes,' 'good,' and so on. But its origin has been the subject of much debate.

  • Some suggest that it is an altered form of the Scottish phrase och aye, which means "oh yes".
  • Others believe it is borrowed from the Greek phrase όλα καλά (óla kalá), meaning "all good".
  • Some theories suggest that it's a Civil War nickname for biscuits or an abbreviation for the telegraph term Open Key.
  • Another theory is that it comes from the Native American Choctaw word 'okeh' meaning 'it is so'.

The Choctaw theory is supported by the fact that US President Woodrow Wilson used to write 'okeh' on papers he approved, which may have led to the adoption of the word 'okay'. However, according to etymologist Allen Walker Read, the term 'ok' can be traced back to a newspaper article printed in 1838 in Boston. The author had used a humorous abbreviation 'ok' for the misspelled phrase 'orl correct' (for 'all correct'), and the editor liked it and started using it, leading to its wide usage.

The term 'OK' gained popularity during the 1840 presidential election, thanks to a politician named Martin Van Buren, who was nicknamed "Old Kinderhook" after his hometown in New York.

The Meaning Behind SOS: Beyond "Save Our Souls"

What could be the origins of the commonly used phrase "SOS"? While many believe it stands for "Save Our Souls" or "Save Our Ship," the actual explanation may surprise you.

SOS, a universally recognized distress signal in Morse code, was created to replace the earlier signal CQD in 1910. CQD, which used the letters CQ for a general alert and D for danger, was replaced by SOS due to its simplicity and ease of use in poor conditions.

Interestingly, SOS can also stand for other phrases such as "Struck Off Strength" in the military or "Secretary of State" in online messaging. However, the first Morse code was created by American artist and inventor Samuel FB Morse in the 1830s and later simplified by German writer, musician, and telegraph pioneer Friedrich Clemens Gerke in 1848, leading to the widely used International Morse code we know today.

SOS has a tragic history, as it was one of the distress signals used during the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. However, there is often confusion over whether SOS is an acronym or an initialism.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "acronym" is typically used for abbreviations that can be pronounced as a single word, while "initialism" is used for those that are spoken letter by letter. However, both terms are commonly used for all types of abbreviations.

The distinction between acronyms and initialisms can be confusing, but a general rule of thumb is that if it can be pronounced as a word, it is likely an acronym. On the other hand, if it can only be spoken letter by letter, it is likely an initialism. For example, "NATO" is an acronym for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while "LOL" is an initialism for Laugh Out Loud.

To summarize, while both acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations, initialisms are created from the first letters of words in a phrase and are usually written in all capital letters without spaces or periods. Acronyms, on the other hand, are pronounced as a word. So, next time you see an abbreviation, remember to consider whether it is an acronym or an initialism. Who knows, you may just impress your friends with your newfound knowledge!

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