What is an Alphabetism?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An alphabetism is a form of abbreviation which is created by using the first letter of every word in a phrase to spell out a new word, much like an acronym. Unlike acronyms, which can usually be read as words, alphabetisms are read and said by spelling out each letter, as in “u es em cee” for USMC, an alphabetism derived from the United States Marine Corps. You may also hear an alphabetism referred to as an initialism, referencing the idea that it takes the initial letter of each word in a phrase to build an acronym.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

When an alphabetism is constructed, little thought is given to pronunciation, because there is no intent of pronouncing the alphabetism. However, most people do try to think about the possibility of creating a spoonerism by accident when they make an alphabetism. A spoonerism is a word or phrase in which letters or sounds are switched around, creating a play on words. Some spoonerisms are harmless, but in some cases, an alphabetism might closely approximate a naughty word, especially when viewed at a glance, and this is not desired.

In an alphabetism such as AAA, where the same letter appears multiple times, it may be read as “triple A,” rather than “ah ah ah.” This shortcut is much less cumbersome than spelling the letters out verbally, and it tends to make the alphabetism more understandable when it is read aloud. In cases where the same letter appears twice in a row, it is also common to see this shortcut, to ensure that people understand that the same letter really does appear twice, and the speaker is not stuttering.

Some acronyms represent a hybrid between the traditional acronym and the alphabetism. For example, the acronym CPAC, which stands for a number of organizations, may be said as “cee pac,” rather than “cee pee a cee.” Organizations which share acronyms or alphabetisms with other groups may adopt this hybrid pronunciation to ensure that they are not confused with the other organization, especially if the groups work in similar fields.

When using an alphabetism in print, it is conventional to fully spell it out, and then include the alphabetism in parentheses, so that people understand what is being referenced. For example, one might say: “the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has a major influence on global fuel prices.” After the alphabetism has been spelled out for the reader, it can be used exclusively throughout the rest of the paper, although some authors switch back and forth when talking about a lot of organizations to prevent alphabet soup.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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