Initials and acronyms

Those words and terms may not mean what you thought

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Several months ago my social media landscape lit up with furious opposition and support of CRT.

My first response, as one who grew up long before the introduction of flat screen televisions, was to wonder why anyone would care so passionately about Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs).

Of course they were not ranting about Cathode Ray Tubes; they were talking about the previously obscure academic theory with the name Critical Race Theory.

For whatever reason, and for whatever motivation, the twitterverse exploded with instant experts on racial dynamics, American history and national identity.

My personal position is that we would have been much better off, both mentally and politically if we had indeed been discussing the merits, history and various versions of cathode ray tubes.

There are many other terms and acronyms that have shifted in meaning thanks to the altered circumstances we find ourselves in currently..

Thanks to COVID, the term SOB, has lost its punch as a borderline swear word and has come to refer to breathing problems, specifically Shortness of Breath.

WTF might have a certain (crude and dismissive) meaning to many people, but to the people of Florida, especially some of the tourist bureaus, it simply stands for Welcome To Florida.

It is even the name of one group’s Facebook page (

And yes, they sell stickers and t-shirts with the term prominently displayed.

Some initialisms have become so common that they have become widely used in conversation and media – that would be terms like BYOB, FYI or OMG.

But JIC (Just In Case) your vocabulary could use a slight update, or if people around you use these terms, here’s a little overview of some terms you may not have run into before.

One fairly common term is IRL (In Real Life). It mostly refers to someone you speak to over the Internet but haven’t actually met and are unlikely to ever meet IRL.

Another widely used term is IMO or IMHO: In My (Humble) Opinion – usually as a response to someone else’s statement.

ICYMI stands for In Case You Missed It.

BTW, another common one, stands for By The Way.

And if you need a complex concept you have never encountered before explained or summarized for you, you might use the term ELI5: Explain Like I’m 5 (years old).

As in almost every case, especially spoken or written communication, context is everything. That phrase you use might mean far more (or even far less) than you intended.

And, perhaps even more importantly, acronyms and abbreviations should be used sparingly.

As with my CRT example at the beginning of this article, not everyone will know what you are talking about at first. Or maybe ever.

Abbreviations and other terms like these do what every language does; they clarify and define who is included – and excluded – in any given context or conversation.

Abbreviations and initials might be considered shorthand – a quick and easy way to make a statement – but make sure they are understood by their intended audience – if not more.

If you find yourself using or encountering an acronym, initialism, or abbreviation, filter it through these four questions:

Will my entire audience (including those not taken into account now) know what this stands for? If not, don’t use it.

Is my messaging more confusing if I use this? If it is, don’t use it.

Am I using this without knowing what it means or stands for or how others might respond to it? If yes, don’t use it.

Does the use of this acronym or initialism impede or bog down comprehension and, by extension, communication efficiency? If yes, don’t use it.

In short, use these terms like hot sauce – in small amounts, to taste, or not at all.

Your primary point, in writing or speaking is to get your point across and to fully understand others.

Make sure that your use of abbreviations and initials helps, instead of blocks your message.


For the total word nerds who might be reading this, acronyms are abbreviations where the abbreviation is formed from letters of other words – usually – but not always – the first letter of each word. The resulting abbreviation needs to be pronounceable as a word.

Examples of this are radar (radio detection and ranging), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), or NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

An initialism is where the letters are pronounced as separate letters (not as a word). Examples would be ETA, DOB, DNA, DMV, MIA and the names for most colleges and universities like UW, MIT or UCLA, most radio and television stations, and a few countries like the UK and the USA.