Acronyms, Initialisms, Abbreviations…and Deadlines

Acronyms on a Scrabble board
Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations on a Scrabble board. Photo by author.

Acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviations have emerged over time as an efficient solution to the repetition within a text of compound terms, lengthy expressions, names of organizations, inventions and organisms. In today’s English, each one of these phenomena occurs in both ordinary language and specialized discourse, and all three can be identified in speech as well as written texts. In other words, it seems as if they are everywhere we look and can be heard wherever we go.

Although many people are not aware of the exact definitions of these three terms, as specialists interested in the language services profession it behooves us to be more particular about how we use them. So I will try to describe here how each term is defined, keeping in mind that there are many phenomena that don’t fall neatly into one category or the other.

Acronym: a shortened version of a compound term formed by using the first letter of each main word of the term and pronounced as a single word. Acronyms can be written in all capital letters, in all lowercase letters, or a combination of capitals and lowercase. Examples include AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), POTUS or Potus (President of the United States), and LASER or laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

Initialism: a shortened version of a compound term formed by using the first letter of each main word of the term and pronounced letter by letter. Initialisms can be written in all capital letters, in all lowercase letters, or a combination of capitals and lowercase. Examples include the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), LOL or lol (laughing out loud), OS or os (operating system).

Abbreviation: a shortened form of a word formed by removing a portion of the word (often from the middle or the end), and sometimes adding a period to mark it as an abbreviation. Examples include: ref. (reference), temp. (temperature), p. or pp. (page or pages), ECG or ecg (electrocardiogram).

The above categories by no means cover all of the phenomena that have emerged over time as humans have tried to avoid writing out lengthy terms or expressions. The appearance of abbreviated forms began to increase during the period of technological progress that followed World War II, although their use dates as far back as ancient Greek and Roman times, and perhaps earlier. Since the post-war period, the process of shortening longer units of meaning has become more widespread, especially in English, and this phenomenon can now be frequently observed in other languages as well. There are many acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations that are almost universally recognized, such as AIDS and OS, and others that are so specialized that only people working in that specific domain would recognize them. Furthermore, as new knowledge emerges, small groups of people invariably create their own local ways of shortening expressions for complex concepts, and these may or may not end up in the general lexicon of a language. Finally, and this is only to be expected, individuals will invent their own personal acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations. It is these two latter scenarios that pose the greatest challenge for translators and, in many cases, cause them the most frustration.

Freelance translation is typically paid by the word, so getting stopped in your tracks by a combination of letters (invoiced as one word by the way) is not only unpleasant but also financially disadvantageous. In my own experience as a freelance technical translator, I have encountered this situation time and again. Some technical translation assignments involve areas of knowledge that are so specific that only a person working in that domain day in and day out would readily recognize all of the acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations from that field. Translators may work on polished texts that have been written with the idea that they are going to be translated, but they may also work on texts whose authors have no idea that anyone would ever read them outside their internal communications system, let alone translate them. This latter text type may include technicians’ notes or informal correspondence among software engineers. Such texts are not written with the idea that they will be translated, and yet, this makes up a large part of what companies need translated. In such informal texts as notes and correspondence, people naturally use abbreviated forms, switch between how the form is written in their own language and how it is written in English, and invent their own abbreviated forms of words and expressions.

So what does a translator do when working under a tight deadline and one of these phenomena comes along and just has them stumped? Below are some suggestions, but but it would also be nice to hear from you about your experiences and the strategies you have used to overcome these barriers.

  1. Try to determine whether this combination of letters is an English language term or whether it is an official form in the source. The status of English as a lingua franca has given rise to the use of English-language abbreviated forms even when there is an official equivalent in their language. One example I see often in medical translation from French to English is the use of the initialism MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) in French texts, whereas the official equivalent in French is IRM (Imagerie par résonance magnétique). When the writing is informal, such as notes, it is not uncommon to see an author use the English and the French initialisms interchangeably in the same text.
  2. Determine how the abbreviated form is functioning in the sentence. In other words, is it acting as a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb? This type of term is more often going to function either as an adjective or a noun, but all functions are possible, especially with abbreviations. For example, in the domain of radiography, the initialism MRI can act as both a noun (as in, “MRI is a technique…”) and as an adjective (an MRI image). Verbs are often abbreviated, as with the French abbreviation “rapp”, which stands for “rappeler” (to call back), as in the sentence “Je rapp client” (I will call the customer back.). The meanings of abbreviations, especially an author’s own personal ones, can be difficult to determine.
  3. If your source language has gendered nouns, try to determine the gender of the abbreviated form. One example from French is the initialism BDC, which can mean “bon de commande” (purchase order) or “Banque de Développement du Canada.” The latter is a feminine proper noun and the former a masculine term. So, in some cases the gender can guide you in the right direction.
  4. Finally, a word of caution. When researching the meaning of one of these abbreviated forms, don’t assume that the most likely meaning is the one that appears first in a Google search or in a search on Think carefully about the context in which it appears and make sure that you can justify your translation choice. As a last resort, and there is no shame in this, describe your issue to the project manager or to the client directly and ask them to confirm that you have found a suitable translation into your target language.

There are a large number of websites devoted to the translation of acronyms, and every translator will compile their own standard set of resources. Some popular ones include and Termbases such as IATE (Interactive Terminology for Europe) and Termium Plus are also useful.

If you are still not satisfied that you have understood an acronym’s meaning, you can also do searches on the websites of the clients who requested the translation. If it is a multinational company, then there are likely to be several versions of the website in different languages. Sometimes a simple search on the company’s website provides enough context to decipher the meaning.

Although this phenomenon of using abbreviated forms of longer expressions can make translators tear their hair out, the fact is that it is not going away any time soon. Acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviations are not only convenient for writers, they are also très à la mode. So we may as well keep calm and carry on, or, more simply put, KCACO.

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