#CityLIS Student Perspectives: Alphabet City by Petra Killoran

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is written by Petra Killoran who discusses the history of acronyms and their use in Library and Information Science, or HAULIS.


Digital Libraries and Information Organisation in the first week of this term had me pondering the world of initialisms and acronyms. As I hastily searched through a glossary of terms in Calhoun’s ‘Exploring Digital Libraries,’ each time a new one came up I became all too aware of how unprepared I was.  Much like a Masonic handshake this sublanguage of letter strings can both include or exclude individuals, turning into a barrier to learning, inclusion, integration and application of duties; a form of dyslexia for the uninitiated if you will.

Acronyms are made up of first letter strings to form an abbreviated format as opposed to a set of initials, many have become words in their own right.  They have grown into a new metalanguage, a sub-text unique and particular to the tribe using it, there is no universal standard or ruling in place.  Some acronyms such as NATO and SCUBA have now become words in their own right  (Gramley, 2012) with almost a tacit presence of what it really means in actuality, a knowing without being able to cite the original wording.

Working in the education bubble I have learned to decode SEN, SENCO, IEP, ADHD, ASD, SIP, and others, which help set the scene of conversations between teaching professionals and support staff.  The military is positively drowning in them often half of the conversations can be made up of them. For instance; ‘An NCO in the QDG’s had to pass his PFA and AFT to be upgraded on his PULHHEEMS’.  In full English, (not the breakfast) this means that: ‘A non commissioned officer in the Queens Dragoon Guards had to pass his Personal Fitness Assessment and Annual Fitness Test to be upgraded on his Physique, Upper Limbs, Lower Limbs, Hearing Right, Hearing Left, Eyesight Right, Eyesight Left, Mental Function and Stability’. This example plainly shows why we use them.

Whilst acronyms are considered a modern linguistic trend, historically it could be argued that symbols or shorthand were an earlier version. For instance, the fish (or ichthys from the Greek) being used as a symbol or hieroglyph signifying Jesus, which dates as far back as the 2nd century A.D. (Zeleznjak, 2011).  In Latin, shortenings such as B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D (Anno Domini) have long since existed in the Julian and Gregorian calendars and are acronomic in their format, although, scholarly disputes exist as to the date of usage conformity (Fabry, 2016)).  In addition, ancient Hebrew texts also incorporate contractions and abbreviations dating back to the 2nd Century B.C. and are present on Maccabean coinage  (Berlin and Grossman, 2011). Wiles uses the Anglo Saxon Beowulf manuscript below as an example of early abbreviation and points to old dictionaries to explain the markings made (2018).

 Beowulf. British Library, Cotton Vitellius, A. xv. (image from Wiles, 2018)

Although I cannot find any other evidence of this, it is a viable theory as Cappelli points to abbreviation as a common practice amongst scribes and that medieval abbreviations date from the ‘Roman system of Sigla’ (Cappelli, 1982. p1).  Also, the impact of post-colonialism by the spread of imposed English language and religious education cannot be underestimated whereby the colonisation and a homogenisation with other languages redesigned the traditional usage to create another (Gramley, 2012). Thus, the debate is clearly open to interpretation via date, written format, spoken language and usage criteria. Personally, I would say that human nature tends to lean towards the slightly lazy or quick fix solutions so perhaps acronyms would have been used even if the practice remained undefined until the 20th Century.

The term acronym originally stems from the Greek, (Akros + Onoma) meaning end or tip and name. It was first coined in 1943 during WWII (Zeleznjak, 2011) and whilst initially used briefly in the First World War (WWI) they remained an unnamed format of abbreviation.  Today global travel, new technologies, the internet and business have diversified and spread the use of acronyms within many professions. The flow of information is as much dependant upon the acronomic terminology we use as it is on the technology we use to communicate with; be it by word of mouth, metadata, coding or via other technological formats.

Most professions have a unique set of coding or jargon that saves time in the working day,  but a constant transmutation of ever new acronyms can also cause as many problems as it solves if people are not ‘in the know’.  For instance,  Wiseman discusses the use of acronyms in a letter to the Internal Medical Journal entitled the ‘Ludicrous Use of Acronyms‘ (2013. p613) to which the Editor-in-Chief conceded that ‘we tend to fall into habits of using shorthand instantly recognised by our own colleagues but not so easily by others’ (Szer, 2013. p613).  As a solution, he suggested authors produce abbreviation lists to encourage wider readership by explaining unfamiliar acronyms.

So, how do authors know what is and is not familiar to others?

Keeping abreast of terminology in texts and online as language adapts and changes according to modernisation, trends and needs is an endless task. Furthermore, differentiating between the same acronymic letter strands across diverse categories for meaning must be like navigating a minefield. So is it worth it?

Professional development dictates that we keep upgrading our personal alphabetic coded specifications in order to perform at a high level and so we learn more to keep up. Nonetheless, until we decode, acquire and become efficient at transplanting these into our long-term memories, we are at a grave disadvantage. Understandably, Library Information Science (LIS) comes with its own acronymic subtext and initials and in order to function at a reasonable level, we must immerse ourselves in them. Each acronym comes with its own facets, essence and background stories turning us into bi-lingual informational beings.

It is important to be mindful of how multifaceted and powerful language can be, not just in the way we communicate it in written formats but also how we verbalise our thoughts to others.  These subtexts we learn and use include us in LIS conversations, allow us to speedily write assignments and to some extent evidence how far we have come by the way we deploy them.  Yet, they also separate us into tribes, clusters of individuals who are all devouring the same alphabet soup but uniquely different from other professions as the stock of English language may be the same but the ingredients change the flavour of the meaning.

As I lurk on the peripheries looking in, delving into glossaries to keep up, I am all too aware of how hampered I am by my unfamiliarity of this coding formula that describes the LIS digital landscape and resources. I am however encouraged by the fact that my brain is an all-encompassing entity that will adapt and assimilate the information with due diligence.



Cappelli, A. (1982) The elements of abbreviation in medieval Latin Palaeography. Translated by D. Heiman and R. Kay. University of Kansas Publications: Lawrence.

Fabry, M. (2016). Now You Know: When Did People Start Saying That the Year Was ‘A.D.’?. [online] Time. Available at: http://time.com/4462775/bc-ad-dating-history/ [Accessed 20 Feb. 2018].

Gramerly, S. (2012) The History of English: An Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.Berlin, A. and Grossman, M. (2011). The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. 2nd Ed. [online] Google Books. Available at:books.google.co.uk/books [Accessed 20 Feb. 2018].

Szer, J. (2013). ‘Editor’s Note’. Internal Medicine Journal, 43(5), pp.613-613.

Wiles, K. (2018). The History of Abbreviation – The History Vault. [online] The History Vault. Available at: https://www.thehistoryvault.co.uk/the-history-of-abbreviation/  [Accessed 20 Feb. 2018].

Wiseman, J. (2013). ‘Ludicrous use of acronyms’. Internal Medicine Journal, 43(5), pp.613-614.

Zeleznjak, J. (2011). Ever Wondered?. Cork: BookBaby.

Title image from the British Library bl.uk/collection-items/beowulf

Word Art by P Killoran

Beowulf manuscript image from: K. Wiles History Vault 


Petra Killoran is on Twitter.

This is an edited version of this post from Petra’s #CityLIS Student Blog.

If you are a current CityLIS student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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