With so much going on around us, every day I stumble on words in the news that make me stop and think. We’ll look at two such words today — and I’ll possibly contradict myself in the process. Bring on the rationalizing!

First up is an observation on the whole Twitter-becoming-X thing, with one reporter writing about how (at the time, anyway) the service’s messages continued to be called “tweets” and were still being “retweeted.”

“With ‘tweets,’ Twitter accomplished in just a few years something few companies have done in a lifetime: It became a verb and implanted itself into the lexicon of America and the world,” said Nick Bilton, author of “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal.”

“Language has always come from the people that use it on a day-to-day basis,” he continued. “And it can’t be controlled, it can’t be created, it can’t be morphed. You don’t get to decide it.”

Another recent news story dealt with those mysterious things most of us still refer to as UFOs, but are now officially known as UAPs or “unidentified anomalous phenomena.” In the piece, the reporter wrote that “The acronym UAP stood for ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ until the Pentagon updated its terminology in December 2022 to encompass submerged and transmedium objects,” not just those that fly.

Here’s the rub. I’m OK with the fact that UFOs are henceforth to be called UAPs — whatever the letters stand for — but I do have a problem with the writer calling “UAP” an acronym. It’s clearly — to me at least — an initialism. As far as I’m concerned, an acronym will always be a group of initials that can be pronounced as a word, such as “laser” (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) or “scuba” (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).


While the folks at Merriam-Webster write “Our research shows that ‘acronym’ is commonly used to refer to both types of abbreviations,” I disagree. Fortunately for me, those same Webster folks also allow that “Some people feel strongly that ‘acronym’ should only be used for terms like NATO, which is pronounced as a single word, and that ‘initialism’ should be used if the individual letters are all pronounced distinctly, as with FBI.” (By the way, an abbreviation is simply the shortening of a word, such as “avenue” to “ave.”)

There you have it. While I agree that language should come from the people who use it on a daily basis, I also stubbornly assert that an acronym is an entirely different animal than an initialism. If I contradict myself, I find myself in good company by doing so (and let the rationalization begin).

No less a wordsmith than Walt Whitman expounded upon the contradiction conundrum near the end of his epic 1855 poem “Leaves of Grass,” writing: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Whitman’s thoughts on the matter echo those that essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted a few years earlier in his essay ”Self-Reliance,” in which he stated: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. . . . Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every-thing you said to-day. . . . To be great is to be misunderstood.”

Since I’m not great, I’ll settle for just being misunderstood.

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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