HistoryAlphabetic abbreviation became possible around 1000 BC and was common in the classical world: the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ (making up the word for ‘fish’) stood for ʾἸησοῦ̑ς Χιοτὸς Θεοῦ̑ ʿὙιὸς Σωτή (Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour), and as a result of their use the fish became a Christian symbol; the Latin letters SPQR stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the Roman people). In addition, short forms such as IMP CAES (Imperator Caesar Emperor Caesar) were common on inscriptions and coins.
Although present-day abbreviation in English descends from such forms, its more immediate origin was in the practices of medieval scribes, among whom short forms were mnemonic and a means of economizing on parchment, effort, and time. As writing extended from Latin into the European vernacular languages, short forms went with it, first as loans (such as AD for Anno Domini: from the year of the Lord), then as native creations (such as BC for Before Christ). All such devices combine economy (of effort, space, and reference) with repetition (of the familiar and formulaic); although some are casual or temporary creations, others have become over the centuries so institutionalized that their origins and natures are seldom considered: as for example AD and BC, when used for everyday secular purposes.
NatureAlthough abbreviations usually need to be concise, convenient, and easy to remember, they do not need to be fully understood to serve their purpose. People literate in English can work successfully with such formulas as e.g. and q.v. whether or not they know their full Latin forms exempli gratia (for the sake of example) and quod vide (which see). The more familiar and successful the short form, the less need for the full form, which may in course of time be forgotten. The full forms of mob (Latin mobile vulgus the fickle crowd) and radar (radio detection and ranging) have no functional value in the 1990s, and many are entirely unaware that these words are (or were) abbreviations. The members of organizations usually have little difficulty with the abbreviations they use, because of sheer familiarity, but people who are not part of the in-group may regard their use as (sometimes frustrating and provocative) jargon.
OrthographyThere are six conventions for writing and printing abbreviations: (1) Capital letters and points: I.N.S.E.A. for ‘International Society for Education through Art’. (2) Capital letters without points: BBC for ‘British Broadcasting Corporation’; NATO for ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’. (3) Lower-case letters with points for formulas such as e.g. and q.v., and without points for items that have become everyday words, such as laser, radar. (4) Mixed capitals and lower case, without points, capitals usually for lexical words, lower case for grammatical words: DoWLT for ‘Dictionary of World Literary Terms’; MoMA for ‘Museum of Modern Art’; mRNA for ‘messenger ribonucleic acid’; WiB the organization ‘Women in Business’. (5) Internal capitals, as in CompuSex for ‘Computer Sex’, and DigiPulse for ‘Digital Pulse’. (6) Hybrid forms: B.Com. for ‘Bachelor of Commerce’.
TypologyThere are three types of abbreviation: (1) Letter-based, such as AAA. (2) Syllable-based, such as con. (3) Hybrid, such as B.Com. All may have a symbolic or a lexical function: symbolic abbreviations serve as formulas, as with c.c. or cc (cubic centimetres/meters), Fe (iron, from Latin ferrum); lexical abbreviations are generally word-like, some less so because they are spoken as letter sequences, as with BBC, some more so because they are spoken as words and often cannot be usefully distinguished from them, as with NATO, radar.
Symbolic abbreviations.Abbreviations that serve as symbols are usually pronounced as letter sequences or as their full originating words, as with c.c. (‘cee-cee’, ‘cubic centimetres’). Some are spoken very differently from anything suggested by etymology or appearance: for example, the former British symbol £.s.d. is pronounced either ‘ell-ess-dee’ or ‘pounds, shillings, and pence’, not *Librae, solidi, et denarii (the Latin for which the signs stand). In some instances, where abbreviations start with a vowel, the use of a or an indicates whether a writer is thinking of them as letters or words: a MP ‘a Member of Parliament’; an MP ‘an em-pee’.
Lexical abbreviations.Abbreviations that serve as words fall into three types that shade into a fourth less clear-cut type: (1) INITIALISM. A letter group that cannot be pronounced as a word, and must therefore be spoken as letters: BBC spoken as ‘bee-bee-cee’. (2) ACRONYM. A letter group that can be, and is, pronounced as a word: NATO spoken as ‘Nay-toe’. (3) CLIPPING. A part of a word standing for the whole: pro for professional and phone for telephone. (4) BLEND, also portmanteau word. A word made from two or more other words, by fusion (brunch from breakfast and lunch) or by putting together syllabic elements from other words (Oxbridge from Oxford and Cambridge). There are at least five variations and hybrids of these basic types: (1) Both initialisms and acronyms: VAT (Value Added Tax) is referred to as both ‘vat’ and ‘vee-ay-tee’. (2) Forms that look like one type but behave like another: WHO (World Health Organization) is ‘double-you-aitch-oh’, not ‘hoo’; POW (prisoner of war) is ‘pee-oh-double-you’, not ‘pow’. (3) Part-initialism, part-acronym: VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) is pronounced ‘vee-tall’; CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory) is ‘cee-dee-rom’. (4) Combinations of letter groups and clippings: ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency computer network). (5) Initialisms adapted as acronyms: ‘GLCMs (ground-launched cruise missiles) and SLCMs (sea-launched cruise missiles) are called Glickems and Slickems by those in the know’ (from Time, 18 Feb. 1985).
Occurrence in textsWhen abbreviations are familiar, they are used without explanation but, because they cannot always be presented without a gloss, there are at least six ways of bringing them into a text:
1. Indirect association.‘The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is now touring three other national exhibitions … In the last fiscal year AGNS sent 23 exhibitions to 63 centres’ (Halifax Chronicle Herald, 11 Nov. 1982).
2. Full form, bracketed abbreviation.‘Britain may ban imports [of blood] that could be spreading the killer disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)’ (Montreal Gazette, 3 May 1983).
3. Abbreviation, bracketed full form.‘The uncertainty surrounding SERPS (State earnings related pension scheme) deepens’ (Times, 11 May 1985).
4. Using ‘(stands) for’.‘Here's an acronym you should know: MEGO. It stands for “My Eyes Glaze Over”’ ( William Safire, New York Times, Jan. 1988).
5. Using ‘or’.‘Ethylene dibromide, or EDB, has been described as the most powerful cancer-causing agent the Environmental Protection Agency has tested’ (International Herald Tribune, 4/5 Feb. 1984).
6. Using ‘as it is known’.‘The failure may explain the absence so far of any announcement about “Initial Operating Capability,” due to have been achieved at Greenham Common on Thursday. IOC, as it is known, means that one flight of missiles is declared officially capable of being launched on a “mission”’ (Observer, 18 Dec. 1983).
Occasionally, an abbreviation is glossed not by the word or words it shortens but by others with which it has semantic links: ‘Paris imposed the ban [on British beef] … because of concern over BSE, or “mad cow” disease’ (The European, 1–3 June 1990). BSE in fact stands for bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Word-formationBecause they are wordlike, abbreviations play a part in WORD-FORMATION, as follows:
1. Conversion.The word overdose is used as a noun and a verb. So also is its medical abbreviation OD: ‘ODing on aspirin’ (overdosing on aspirin).
2. Derivation.(1) With prefixes: an ex-PoC is someone no longer a prisoner of conscience (Amnesty International); pro-JLP means in favour of the Jamaican Labour Party. (2) With suffixes: Rabisms are noteworthy sayings of the British politician R. A. Butler; WASPy means like a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. (3) With both: an ex-CFL-er is a former member of the Canadian Football League.
3. Attribution.Like steel in steel bridge: an AI gambit is a gambit relating to artificial intelligence; an IRA gunman is a gunman belonging to the Irish Republican Army. Abbreviations occur attributively before other abbreviations: a BBC micro is a British Broadcasting Corporation microcomputer; an IBM PC is an International Business Machines personal computer. Abbreviations may occur in a string in which precise attribution is not easily determined: NYS ESOL BEA refers to the composite New York State English to Speakers of Other Languages Bilingual Educators Association.
4. Compounding.With the same stress patterns as teapot and blackbird: A-bomb, AIDS cure. Composites containing abbreviations are common and often intricate, mixing compounding and attribution: NY kiddie porn, an AIDS-Africa link, Metro-Montreal QPF contingent patrols (Metropolitan Montreal Quebec Police Force contingent patrols). Combining forms may precede or follow abbreviations: pseudo- in a pseudo-BBC accent; -logy in UFOlogy, the study of Unidentified Flying Objects. In some classical compounds, a syllable is dropped for ease of expression: symbology from symbol and -ology.
5. Blending.Because blending is associated with abbreviation, the analysis of formations is particularly complex. A blend may be created for stunt purposes or convenience and bring together an abbreviation and part of a word: for example, IBMulation is the emulation of International Business Machines.
Ad hoc usageThe use of abbreviations has long been part of note-taking, file-making, cataloguing, and the making of inventories. In such activities, short forms are often created for ad hoc purposes, used for a time, then dispensed with and forgotten. In such restricted systems, LA may mean not Los Angeles but late arrivals. Ad hoc abbreviation is a major feature of computer use, especially in the creation of filenames: for example, Vocab-doc ‘Vocabulary document’.
Special effectsAbbreviations may be ironic, humorous, or whimsical: for example, the rail link between the town of Bedford and the London station of St Pancras is locally known as the Bedpan Line. Comments on life may be telescoped into such sardonic packages as: BOGSAT a Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around a Table (making decisions about other people); TGIF Thank God It's Friday (after a particularly hard working week). In addition, some institutionalized abbreviations have more than one interpretation. This double meaning may be intentional, as with ATI, whose primary meaning is American Tours International and secondary sense, as a kind of business motto, is Attitude, Teamwork, Initiative. More commonly, however, secondary meanings are ironic: for example, in the British honours system, the form CMG (Commander of St Michael and St George) often glossed as Call Me God.
See ABRIDG(E)MENT, CONTRACTION, DIACRITIC, JEWISH ENGLISH, LETTER WORD, NUMBER1, SYLLABLE WORD, TELESCOPING.
abbreviation, in writing, arbitrary shortening of a word, usually by cutting off letters from the end, as in U.S. and Gen. (General). Contraction serves the same purpose but is understood strictly to be the shortening of a word by cutting out letters in the middle, the omission sometimes being indicated by an apostrophe, as in the word don't. Most abbreviations are followed by a period. Usage, however, differs widely, and recently omission of periods has become common, as in NATO and UN. Acronyms are combinations of the first letters/syllables in a group of words to form a new grouping of letters that can be pronounced as a word. A period is never used when apostrophes appear. A list of abbreviations used in this encyclopedia may be found in the prefatory matter.