Have you ever looked at a group of initials and thought they could stand for two completely different things? As you’d expect, I’ve done it dozens of times, so I decided to take a deeper look into the matter.

But first a little housekeeping (or maybe a lot). Having broached the subject of abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms in the past, I now feel compelled to wade into the fray about their respective definitions.

An abbreviation is simply the shortening of a word, such as changing “December” to “Dec.” or turning “photograph” into “photo,” while an initialism (such as “FBI”) is formed by using the first letter of each word to make a group of letters that are pronounced individually.

While many word geeks (including me) contend that an acronym (such as “scuba,” which is short for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”) is a group of initials that are pronounced as a word, the experts at Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary define initialisms and acronyms as the same things. (“Acronym” comes from the Greek terms “acro,” which means “peak” or “initial” and “nym,” which is “kind of word”).

But wait, there’s more. According to English.stackexchange.com, there’s even an old online debate about what to call initialisms and acronyms that stand for two things simultaneously. The term “double acronym” has been used, but one poster wonders if there’s another term to replace that term since, he says,  it “doesn’t appear to be widely used and is confusing.”

Replies to his query suggest going with “ambiguous (open to more than one interpretation) acronym,” but the matter appears to remain far from settled. Settled or not, let’s take a look at a few of these ambiguous letter groupings.


In the area of ambiguous abbreviations there’s Dr., which can be either the short form of “doctor” or the abbreviated form of “Drive” as in 500 Medical Dr., where her practice is located.

St. can stand for saint or street. Do you remember when the address of St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston was on Golder St.?

Vet can be an abbreviation for “veterinarian” or for a former military person (whose support dog may need some medical attention).

For me, initialisms are by far the most fruitful source of ambiguity with many standing for two or three different things. For example there’s AM (amplitude modulation), which brings you the radio program you listen to early in the a.m. (ante meridiem).

Sometimes I wonder, did members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) have individual retirement accounts?

Do some IRS (Internal Revenue Service) employees drive Corvettes with independent rear suspension?


How about that soldier who’s driving his POV (privately owned vehicle): What’s his point of view?

In the doctor’s office, did the writer of an MS (manuscript) just find out he has multiple sclerosis?

Does the BP (British Petroleum) executive have high blood pressure?

Do any students at UTI (Universal Technical Institute) have a urinary tract infection?

Interestingly, many acronyms — initials we pronounce as words — turn out to be words that can’t be discussed in polite company, while some are downright offensive.

I recall a time when the folks in Beantown wanted to make some changes, so they set up the Boston Redevelopment Agency, but quickly changed the group’s name once they realized that the acronym would be BRA.

When the operators of Sioux City (Iowa) Gateway Airport learned that its airport code was SUX, they asked the Federal Aviation Administration for a different one. The airport decided to stick with SUX after the FAA offered GAY as an alternative. (Maybe that’s why Fresno Yosemite International Airport in California decided to just stay with FAT).

And then there’s the matter of the unfortunate acronym for Microsoft’s 2002 Critical Update Notification Tool. Once they realized what they had done, the team quickly changed the name to the more user-friendly Critical Updated Notification Utility.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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