OK, some of them are acronyms: the Texas Anesthesia Conference for Obstetricians, aka TACO, indeed makes for a nice, pronounceable acronym. That’s the thing: If it ain’t a pronounceable word, it ain’t an acronym. It’s a plain old abbreviation.
The WSJ, to its credit, acknowledges the controversy halfway through its story (compelled, in all likelihood, by an offended copy editor). But, judging from the editing of the story, it seems “acronym” mania has won the day at the nation’s second-largest circulation newspaper.
The New York Times, on the other hand, maintains the acronym-vs.-abbreviation distinction. According to a 1999 edition of the NYT’s Manual of Style and Usage, “Unless pronounced as a word, an abbreviation is not an acronym.” Furthermore, if an acronym is more than four letters, it’s rendered in mixed case, not all caps. (For instance, this week’s magazine feature on Abe Foxman refers to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as “Aipac.” You’ll also see “Unicef” and “Unesco” a lot.)
And what about us? Well, we render abbreviations and acronyms alike in all caps. The big, controversial exception around here is Pepco. Up until about a year ago, we always did “PEPCO” (Potomac Electric Power Co.), but the company had actually preferred the mixed-case rendering for years before that. Finally last year, we decided that “PEPCO” looked kinda stupid since not even the company itself used all caps—you can’t even find a reference to Potomac Electric Power on their Web site—so we switched. (That wasn’t before we sloppily used both versions in one item in March.)
Is it a huge loss if the distinction between “abbreviation” and “acronym” is lost? Nah, not really—but it does suck a little bit when words lose their precision. Why have a distinction without a difference?