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Free trade goes from acronyms to initialism

Big news on the international front for Canada this week.

The trade agreement between the three North American countries has gone from being an acronym to being an initialism.

When it was the North American Free Trade Agreement, it was usually shortened to NAFTA, and pronounced as if it was a regular English word.

That makes it an acronym.

Now, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which can be shortened to USMCA, but I defy anyone to come up with a reasonable pronunciation.

That makes it an initialism.

Both of these, btw (by the way, for those not hip to computer lingo), are also classed as abbreviations.

There are a lot of both acronyms and initialisms around, and the computer era has brought even more of both, especially for online chat. Imagine, frequent chatters, how often you use “lol” or “brb”. I think of both of these as initialisms, although it would be possible to use “lol” as an acronym.

The only problem is if you do pronounce it as an English word, someone may think you’re being lazy. You know “lolling” around. Same pronunciation.

What gets even more confusing is when the same abbreviation has a number of different meanings, depending on context. A teen, for instance, using the family computer to chat with a friend may throw in a quick “pos” to let his friend know he has a “parent over shoulder,” so be careful what you type in.

If you’re on a mission in outer space, however, and control back on Earth starts talking about your “POS”, don’t worry about someone watching what you type. They’re talking about your Portable Oxygen System, and you’ll probably still want to pay attention, oxygen being kind of important to us humans.

And if you’re in the retail business, “POS” means Point Of Sale, using referring to the terminal a transaction was made at.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, because what you may think of as an initialism turns out to be an acronym.

Years ago, I was attending a school board meeting as a reporter when someone referred to the need for “aitchvac” work needed over the summer at several schools.

I made a careful note of it, then realized the next day I had no idea what they were talking about. So I phoned someone at the district office, and was told it was actually “HVAC”, and stood for Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning.

When I see “HVAC” now in a story, I think of it as an acronym, even though I guess by the strictest definition it isn’t, since you’re pronouncing one of the letters by its own name instead of as part of a word.

That’s enough about acronyms and initialisms for this week, I think.

As Tigger from Winnie the Pooh would say, “TTFN”. Ta-Ta For Now.

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