on dictionaries and acronyms and the ever-changing language that we speak and write and use and abuse

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

I HAVE RELIED ON and have an al­most ex­clu­sive user of the Merriam-Webster dic­tio­nary for a long time—years be­fore I began using the in­ternet. In grade school, I was in­formed that the im­por­tant word in a dic­tio­nary was not “Webster”—which was public do­main and there­fore generic and there­fore use­less as a sign of quality. It was the “Mer­riam” that as­sured quality.

I have been get­ting dis­grun­tled with MW of late, as it seems to have adopted a more lax and more de­scrip­tive take on the use of the lan­guage. Need­less to say, I prefer my dic­tio­naries to be as pre­scrip­tive as pos­sible. The BIG break came a few weeks ago:

I started a new job and began my training. Both of my in­struc­tors are con­sid­er­ably younger than I am. Like so many oc­cu­pa­tions, the po­si­tion is rife with jargon—I re­ally wanted to use nomen­cla­ture but it is the less ac­cu­rate of the two choices here—and there are LOTS of abbreviations.


A pre­scrip­tive dic­tio­nary is al­most en­tirely myth­ical, a meme ginned up by the media in the early 1960s and re­peated end­lessly for fifty years with no fact-checking.


Both in­struc­tors con­sis­tently re­ferred to common ab­bre­vi­a­tions as “acronyms.” Well, I did not want to begin my training by cor­recting my trainers, so I kept my mouth shut. (And the fact that none of the other trainees seemed to no­tice this dis­crep­ancy made me even more reticent.)

Then, on Friday, while re­searching an­other sub­ject, I found my­self in Merriam-Webster and looked up the word acronym. Here is what I found under their full definition:

1. A word formed from the ini­tial letter or let­ters of each of the suc­ces­sive parts or major parts of a com­pound term.

Common acronyms in­clude NATO (for the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion), radar (radio de­tec­tion and ranging), laser (light am­pli­fi­ca­tion by stim­u­lated emis­sion of ra­di­a­tion) and scuba (self con­tained un­der­water breathing apparatus).

2. An ab­bre­vi­a­tion formed from ini­tial letters.

Common ab­bre­vi­a­tions in­clude USA (United States of America), FBI (Fed­eral Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion), and RIAA (Recording In­dustry As­so­ci­a­tion of America).

The first de­f­i­n­i­tion above de­fines acronym as some­thing dis­tinct from a reg­ular ab­bre­vi­a­tion, but the second de­f­i­n­i­tion above tells us that acronym is syn­ony­mous with ab­bre­vi­a­tion!

So then, why would the ed­i­tors at Merriam-Webster de­fine a spe­cial­ized ab­bre­vi­a­tion as a mere ab­bre­vi­a­tion, thereby lumping it in with normal ab­bre­vi­a­tions?

Be­cause so many of the afore­men­tioned young people are mis­using the word and Merriam-Webster is going along for the ride without ques­tioning the in­clu­sion of an in­cor­rect meaning—and con­fusing to those who know the cor­rect meaning—in their pages!

This is what has re­cently hap­pened to such words as moot (which has long meant de­bat­able and now seems to have a myriad of mean­ings based on the writer) and scan (to ex­amine closely or to read every­thing on a page), both of which are mis­used with cringe-causing reg­u­larity by pro­fes­sional scribblers.

The first de­f­i­n­i­tion of these words—the old de­f­i­n­i­tion, the cor­rect definition—is the one that everyone who knows any­thing about the Eng­lish lan­guage usu­ally uses when communicating—meaning we could be mis­com­mu­ni­cating without re­al­izing it!

Or per­haps I should say that it is the de­f­i­n­i­tion that everyone over a cer­tain age who doesn’t work in cer­tain fields that at­tract young workers has known for decades.



After a parent com­plained about an el­e­men­tary school stu­dent stum­bling across “oral sex” in a class­room dic­tio­nary, Menifee Union School Dis­trict (Cal­i­fornia) of­fi­cials pulled their Merriam-Webster dic­tio­naries from all school shelves. “It’s just not age ap­pro­priate,” a dis­trict rep­re­sen­ta­tive said. Cen­sor­ship knows no bounds.

The prescriptive dictionary is an urban legend

But our dic­tio­naries ap­pear to be­coming ever more de­scrip­tive and our lan­guage ever more in­flu­enced by such things as hip-hop slang, ad­ver­tising clichés, the afore­men­tioned jargon­i­za­tion of terms in modern busi­nesses, and other in­flu­ences that are “cor­rupting” the language.

And I am not pleased: I prefer au­thor­i­ta­tive dic­tio­naries that “pre­scribe” cor­rect usage but note con­tem­po­rary use (or misuse). That is, like else­where, I want to know the rules be­fore I beak them.

So, I did a little re­search in search of the best pre­scrip­tive dic­tio­nary avail­able on­line and free. This led me to an in­ter­esting ar­ticle re­garding the de­f­i­n­i­tion of and dif­fer­ences be­tween pre­scrip­tive and de­scrip­tive dic­tio­naries. Ti­tled “Com­paring and Ar­guing About Dic­tio­naries,” by Grant Bar­rett for The Way With Words web­site (Sep­tember 7, 2012), it ad­dresses mis­con­cep­tions re­garding both, es­pe­cially the former. 1

Prescriptivism versus descriptivism

Pre­scrip­tivism is the as­ser­tion and en­force­ment of a spe­cific set of rules by a person or in­sti­tu­tion. In dic­tio­naries, pre­scrip­tivism means the dic­tio­nary ex­plains there are lan­guage rules that should be fol­lowed and that cer­tain forms or us­ages should be avoided. Usu­ally these pre­scrip­tions and pro­scrip­tions are tra­di­tional and rep­re­sent “re­ceived wisdom” that has been passed from teacher to pupil for a long time.

De­scrip­tivism in a lex­i­co­graph­ical con­text means that lan­guage be­hav­iors and usage of language-users are ex­am­ined by the ed­i­tors. A set of char­ac­ter­is­tics that de­scribe the lan­guage are de­rived from that study and then explained.

De­scrip­tivists some­times de­scribe pre­scrip­tivists as people who use cir­cular logic or beg the ques­tion: This rule is the rule be­cause it is the rule. They may also de­scribe them as elitist and snobby.

Pre­scrip­tivists some­times de­scribe de­scrip­tivists as people who have no stan­dards and are al­lowing mo­rons to ruin the lan­guage, since, by not ex­clu­sively fol­lowing the ex­am­ples of those who call them­selves grammar ex­perts, we are al­lowing common people to in­flu­ence how everyone should speak.

Do prescriptivist dictionaries even exist?

So are there pre­scrip­tivist dic­tio­naries? Not re­ally. Dic­tio­naries are based on de­scrip­tivist prin­ci­ples (largely using cor­pora and ci­ta­tion files as their source data) be­cause that’s how dic­tio­naries are made. If ref­er­ence work is mostly pre­scrip­tivist, it is no longer a dic­tio­nary. It is a style guide or a usage guide and will be la­beled and sold as such. [em­phasis added]

Dic­tio­naries do often have usage panels (made of ex­perts who give ad­vice on fre­quently dis­puted lan­guage mat­ters) and dic­tio­naries do often in­clude usage notes which can con­tain pre­scrip­tivist notions.

But usage notes usu­ally serve to de­scribe common de­bates and re­solve common con­fu­sions and not to de­mand cer­tain lin­guistic be­havior or to ex­co­riate those who prac­tice cer­tain modes of speech or writing.

Pre­scrip­tivist usage and style guides do often de­mand and ex­co­riate, even going so far as to call prac­ti­tioners of cer­tain speech and writing habits fools, id­iots, un­e­d­u­cated, lazy, low-class, or con­temptible, some­times in those exact words.”


CalvinAndHobbs VerbWord 800

A few more observations from experts

“Like our com­peti­tors, the ed­i­to­rial staff of the Amer­ican Her­itage Dic­tio­naries crafts de­f­i­n­i­tions based on ci­ta­tional ev­i­dence that shows how the word is used. The Amer­ican Her­itage Dic­tio­nary is NOT con­sid­ered a pre­scrip­tive dic­tio­nary, al­though, like most cases, it does pro­vide a small amount of pre­scrip­tive in­for­ma­tion.” – Steve Kleinedler, Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­itor of Amer­ican Her­itage Dic­tio­naries 2

“When the Ox­ford Amer­ican Dic­tio­nary ap­peared in 1980, its pub­licity claimed it ‘lays down the law about usage.’ That’s the last truly pre­scrip­tive claim I can re­call for any stan­dard dic­tio­nary, and of course even at the time it was . . . ex­ag­ger­ated.” – Jonathan Lighter, ed­itor in chief of the His­tor­ical Dic­tio­nary Of Amer­ican Slang 2

“I’ve re­cently looked at the his­tory of the so-called pre­scrip­tive versus de­scrip­tive dic­tio­naries. The dis­tinc­tion is al­most en­tirely myth­ical, a meme ginned up by the media in the early 1960s and re­peated end­lessly for fifty years with no fact-checking.” – Steven Pinker, Har­vard Col­lege Pro­fessor of Psy­chology and Chair of the Usage Panel of the Amer­ican Her­itage Dic­tio­nary Of The Eng­lish Lan­guage 2

A single source to end all arguments

So, a it looks like I am out of luck wanting to find a pre­scrip­tionist dic­tio­nary and a source to end all usage ar­gu­ments. It also looks like I will be more acceptable—though not approving—of the too flex­ible use of acronym. And I will be using the Free Dic­tio­nary as a sec­ondary go-to source henceforth!

So then, I—a prescriptionist—am in error: the use of the word acronym to de­scribe common ab­bre­vi­a­tions is now sanc­tioned by the de­scrip­tion­ists in charge of the dic­tio­naries and I could on dic­tio­naries and acronyms even more but why tor­ture you, the reader, heyna?

And without dic­tio­naries, well, where would we be?



1   Note that Mr. Bar­rett’s ar­ticle is just under 1,500 words in length; my abridged ver­sion above is just over 300 words, so there is lots more to read at the Way With Words site. So, in­ter­ested readers—and if you are my reader, you’d best be interested—should click on over and read the other 1,200 words.

2   This quote is in­cluded in the ar­ticle “Com­paring and Ar­guing About Dic­tio­naries.”


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I read your latest post re­garding the cur­rent (mis)use of acronym vs. abbreviation.

When I was in col­lege (Eng­lish major), I re­call a dis­tinc­tion was made be­tween calling a word an acronym or “some­thing else.”

How­ever, the dis­tinc­tion is not a choice be­tween ei­ther “acronym” or “ab­bre­vi­a­tion.”

Al­though the ex­am­ples pre­sented: “laser, radar and scuba” are cor­rectly iden­ti­fied as acronyms, the FBI ref­er­ence does not qualify as an acronym, though it is an “ab­bre­vi­a­tion.”

The true de­scrip­tive as­sign­ment of FBI ac­cording to my professors:


The dis­tinc­tion? One has to pro­nounce each letter separately.

NSA (Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency) is an­other example...as is TSA. :> )

In other words, the ini­tials do not form a “pro­nounce­able” word.

Iron­i­cally, I did a quick check of my e-dictionary only to find a dis­ap­pointing result...



1). an ab­bre­vi­a­tion con­sisting of ini­tial let­ters pro­nounced sep­a­rately [e.g., CPU (cen­tral pro­cessing unit)].

2). an acronym.



Un­for­tu­nately, to be pre­cise (as I, and I as­sume you, would argue), de­f­i­n­i­tion number 2 seems to con­tra­dict de­f­i­n­i­tion number 1. (Re­member, ac­cording to my in­struc­tors, an acronym must be pro­nounce­able word.)

This dis­tinc­tion may be more em­phatic using an­other source, how­ever, I do not have ac­cess to one at the mo­ment. So, I shall defer to my former pro­fes­sors at this time.

And don’t get me started about the re­dun­dancy of ” I’ve got” ( I have got) vs. the simple “I have.”

Or the use of the word “like” when the words “such as” are intended.

“Llike” means “sim­ilar,” how­ever, it is some­what unique, and should not be in­cluded with the rest of the items being ref­er­enced. It is not an example. 

“Such as” is meant to be in­cluded with the rest of the items being ref­er­enced. It is an example.

How many times have you heard this misuse?

I know you don’t watch much tele­vi­sion, how­ever, you are missing a number of grammar mis­takes made during the com­mer­cials that are broad­cast to the un­sus­pecting public.

No wonder the lan­guage, as well as the pop­u­la­tion, is being “dumbed-down.”

If a child (or an adult!) hears it on tele­vi­sion, it must be correct....

Grrrr.... again.