Are there any two-letter acronyms that are pronounced as words?
January 7, 2013 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for any examples of two-letter acronyms that are pronounced as words in English (IT wouldn't count because it is pronounced as two individual letters). Due to the fact that the word "acronym" is widely used to refer to any abbreviation based on initial letters this seems to be quite difficult to search for. Any suggestions?

If none exist, I'm also curious about why this is if anyone can point to an explanation. Thanks!
posted by tomcooke to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
OK is weird, but might count? It seems like the etymology of "okay" or "okeh" is still fuzzy, but...maybe?
posted by shesdeadimalive at 2:23 PM on January 7, 2013

Two letter acronyms that are possible to pronounce as a word are often already words, so say "er" instead of ER or "it" instead of IT or "am" instead of AM would be confusing to the listener, I think, whereas an acronym that does not duplicate an existing word is less confusing (SCUBA, RADAR, LASER.)

There are loads of two letter abbrevations that aren't pronounceable in English (FM, PM, QC, PT.)
posted by ambrosia at 2:24 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

WE TV originally stood for Women's Entertainment.
posted by Etrigan at 2:27 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

WU (as in Washington University, as in Washington University in St. Louis) is sometimes used as an acronym (pronounced "woo"), but this is most common as part of a larger word or phrase. For example, the sadly departed wuarchive or the WU Pops orchestra.

The Unix command su stands for "substitute user" and is pronounced like the name Sue, not spelled out as ess-you.
posted by jedicus at 2:35 PM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Do file extensions count as acronyms? I commonly pronounce (and hear pronounced) the extension for Python source code files (.py) as "pie." Likewise with top-level internet domain names—there are a bunch of country domains that I'd pronounce as a single word, rather than as spelling out the letters (like .co and .nu).
posted by aparrish at 2:38 PM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Two-letter USPS state abbreviations can be pronounced as words for comedic or emphatic effect -- the Car Talk guys, for example, always gave their address as "Cambridge, Mah" (for MA). I've heard almost all of them pronounced this way, but I used to run a post office, so I'm an unreliable sample.
posted by Etrigan at 2:39 PM on January 7, 2013

Following on Etrigan's answer, MO, said like "Moe", is a not-uncommon nickname for Missouri (for example, the USS Missouri was nicknamed "Mighty Mo"). It's not an acronym, though.
posted by zsazsa at 2:58 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Halfway there is Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or 'the U.P.' While that one is pronounced in two syllables, residents call themselves 'You-pers'.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:22 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can only offer a couple two-letter examples that aren't pronounced as initialisms (e.g., in the UK, websites with extensions are often pronounced as "ack-uck"*), but I do have some insight as to why there aren't many of them out there.

Many abbreviations come into existence through spoken communication and as such, you need to communicate using sounds, not letters. Speaking letters is a cue to hearers that something is being spelled out, whereas pronouncing them as a word contains no such signal. Hearers want to normalize (parse and make semantic sense of) the speech stream they're receiving and all sorts of linguistic cues (such as prosody, redundancy, and visual signals, to name a few) help them make decisions out of ambiguity, noise in the signal, etc. Without cues to lead hearers down certain linguistic paths, a two-sound word is more likely to be understood as a discourse marker, filler, or function word.

Additionally, the number of bi-gram (two-part) sound combinations you can make with the English phoneme inventory is a closed set, as is the set of function words. The function words are especially high-frequency and have a LOT of variation (yet at the same time much of this variation goes unnoticed, normalization at work). There are very few possible initialisms which when pronounced as words, couldn't easily be confused as some variant of a function word (or filler, discourse marker, etc.). However, as words get longer, this possible confusion with other words decreases (more "data" to your ears to work with and help disambiguate things).

Of course the place in which you're speaking the acronym isn't one where a function word would normally go, and the context would disambiguate things somewhat, but as a speakers we generally try to help our hearers understand what we're saying. This involves lots of decisions that we're not even aware of**. Choosing to pronounce very short acronyms as initialisms instead of words is just one of those quick choices. And then once a pronunciation becomes standardized that way, going against that structure might be marked or cause confusion.

Oh, and one more thing...because these aren't clippings or abbreviations, to pronounce them as words is in a sense to prioritize the rules that say "pronounce strings that mean things as if words" over the structure of what the strings represent (the first letter of each word that makes up the acronym). This is done a lot (especially as these acronyms get longer and cross the threshold from signaling initialism over to alphabet soup...SONAR, RADAR, WYSIWYG) and for various reasons, but they risk being mis-parsed as an abbreviation or a clipping as well (in addition to being misunderstood as a filler, DM, function word). Lots of interesting examples of this these days...abbreviations like LOL (which originated online, i.e. is a netologism***) are being used more and more in the spoken speech and there is a lot of LOL pronounced ell-oh-ell, lolll, lawl and other ways?

tl;dr version: words so small are easily confused with other things when not spelled out.

*which is technically 4 letters and 4 sounds, so kind of doesn't work here after all.
**the dative alternation in English is a well researched and fascinating example of this in psycholinguistic research
***a term my supervisor and I came up with to describe words that originate in computer-mediated communication environments.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:24 PM on January 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Mr Mrs Ms
posted by annsunny at 3:33 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mr., Mrs., and Ms. aren't made out of initials; the first two are contractions of Mister and Mistress, while the third is purposefully ambiguous as to whether it's a contraction of Mistress or Miss.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:56 PM on January 7, 2013

I know we all try to forget its existence entirely, but Windows ME stands for Windows Millennium Edition.
posted by jamaro at 4:03 PM on January 7, 2013

BO GO - buy one, get one (free, half off, etc)
posted by youngergirl44 at 4:06 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm going to retract Win ME because it was promoted as an initialism, pronouncing it as a word is casual use adopted by a much smaller subset.
posted by jamaro at 4:14 PM on January 7, 2013

I believe that HI as the abbreviation for Hostelling Internation is often pronounced as the word 'hi' - for example, HI-USA, pronounced as 'hi' followed by letters U-S-A. I don't hang out with HI folks that much so I could be wrong about that.

Also there is a complete list of two-letter combinations--surprisingly few interesting possible words there.
posted by flug at 4:18 PM on January 7, 2013

jamaro: I don't know about that; the logo says Me, not ME. I only ever heard "me" when it was out, and given the logo it seems that Microsoft wanted people to say it that way.
posted by zsazsa at 4:19 PM on January 7, 2013

A contemporary source saying Microsoft said to pronounce it like the pronoun.
posted by zsazsa at 4:24 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, there's PI, which is the acronym for Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics. Most people in the area pronounce it as pie, of course.
posted by valoius at 4:39 PM on January 7, 2013

I believe that HI as the abbreviation for Hostelling Internation is often pronounced as the word 'hi' - for example, HI-USA, pronounced as 'hi' followed by letters U-S-A. I don't hang out with HI folks that much so I could be wrong about that.

I can confirm this, at least for the now-defunct Toledo Area council--I was a board member for a while. HI-TA was pronounced "high-tah".
posted by pullayup at 4:42 PM on January 7, 2013

I believe that HI as the abbreviation for Hostelling Internation is often pronounced as the word 'hi' - for example, HI-USA, pronounced as 'hi' followed by letters U-S-A. I don't hang out with HI folks that much so I could be wrong about that.

I am an HI folk and can tell you it is a mixture. It is true that we do this with Canada now and then (sometimes "hi, Canada" and sometimes "aitch eye Canada") and the defunct British Columbia region (Hostelling International - Canada -British Columbia) was always HI-C-BC, invariably pronounced "hi see bee see." In my years of experience, though, HI-USA is pretty much always spoken as five separate letters.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:25 PM on January 7, 2013

I don't know if they qualify as what you're looking for exactly, but there are some two-consonant acronyms that are made pronounceable as words by the addition of an extra vowel sound in the middle, like "Veep" for "VP = Vice President", "Jeep" for "GP = General Purpose" (although apparently this origin is disputed), "bip" for "BP = basis point," etc. I suspect you could find a lot more examples like those, maybe particularly in the realms of military and business jargon, where people tend to use these kinds of slang abbreviations.
posted by albrecht at 9:07 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Seattle people in real life actually say YOO-DUB when pronouncing UW, the abbreviation for the University of Washington. YOO-DUB sounds like a word to me, but I dunno if it qualifies.
posted by cgc373 at 11:28 PM on January 7, 2013

in the UK, websites with extensions are often pronounced as "ack-uck"

I have had a live email address at one institution or another for nearly 20 years and have never heard someone say this. 'ack' yes, but never 'uck'.
posted by biffa at 2:32 AM on January 8, 2013

Not exactly English, but the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (wiki) is abbreviated as VU and pronounced as "voo", including when Dutch speakers speak English.
posted by knile at 5:18 AM on January 8, 2013

I have, on odd occasions, heard (in the UK) TV pronounced as "teev". This might be influenced a little by the TV programme Fonejacker, where one of the characters pronounces initialisms as words.
posted by Jabberwocky at 11:07 AM on January 8, 2013

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