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Acronym vs initialism illustration: comparing the acronym laser—pronounced as a word— and the initialism FBI—pronounced by saying the letters

Acronyms and initialisms

We all know that you make an acronym by taking the initial letters of a set of words and putting them together. So Random Access Memory becomes RAM, or the United States becomes the US. But I only found out recently that these two examples are actually different.

An acronym is when the initials of a set of words are said as a word, like laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), radar (radio detection and ranging), sonar (sound navigation and ranging), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

An initialism, by contrast, is when a set of initials are pronounced as letters when you say them, like FBI, CIA, US, BBC or CD.

More word-related sketchplanations

This sketch was revised for my book Big Ideas Little Pictures. Here's the original.

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