Three-letter acronym

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A three-letter acronym (TLA), or three-letter abbreviation, is an abbreviation consisting of three letters. These are usually the initial letters of the words of the phrase abbreviated, and are written in capital letters (upper case); three-letter abbreviations such as etc. and Mrs. are not three-letter acronyms, but "TLA" itself is a TLA (an example of an autological abbreviation).


Most three-letter abbreviations are not, strictly, acronyms, but rather initialisms: all the letters are pronounced as the names of letters, as in APA /ˌpˈ/ AY-pee-AY. Some are true acronyms, pronounced as a word; computed axial tomography, CAT, is almost always pronounced as the animal's name ( /kæt/ ) in "CAT scan". Even the initialisms are however considered three-letter acronyms, because that term appeared first in widespread use, and is overwhelmingly popular today.


History and origins

The exact phrase three-letter acronym appeared in the sociology literature in 1975. [1] Three-letter acronyms were used as mnemonics in biological sciences, from 1977 [2] and their practical advantage was promoted by Weber in 1982. [3] They are used in many other fields, but the term TLA is particularly associated with computing. [4] In 1980, the manual for the Sinclair ZX81 home computer used and explained TLA. [5] The specific generation of three-letter acronyms in computing was mentioned in a JPL report of 1982. [6] In 1988, in a paper titled "On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computing Science", eminent computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra wrote "Because no endeavour is respectable these days without a TLA ..." [7] By 1992 it was in a Microsoft handbook. [8]


The number of possible three-letter abbreviations using the 26 letters of the alphabet from A to Z (AAA, AAB ... to ZZY, ZZZ) is 26 × 26 × 26 = 17,576. An additional 26 × 26 × 10 = 6760 can be produced if the third position is allowed to be a digit 0-9, giving a total of 24,336.

In standard English, WWW is the TLA whose pronunciation requires the most syllables -- typically nine. The usefulness of TLAs typically comes from it being quicker to say the acronym than the phrase it represents; however saying 'WWW' in English requires three times as many syllables as the phrase it is meant to abbreviate (World Wide Web). Consequently, "www" is sometimes abbreviated as "dubdubdub" in speech. [9]

See also

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  1. Levy, M. J. (1975). "Review of The Logic of Social Systems". American Journal of Sociology . 81 (3): 658. doi:10.1086/226119. JSTOR   2777655. The acronyms DSE and DNA have something in common: each is a three-letter acronym.
  2. Seavey, S. R.; Raven, P. H. (1977). "Chromosomal Differentiation and the Sources of the South American Species of Epilobium (Onagraceae)". Journal of Biogeography. 4 (1): 57. doi:10.2307/3038128. JSTOR   3038128. All taxa indicated by three-letter acronyms with strains indicated by a fourth letter if necessary.
  3. Weber, W. A. (1982). "Mnemonic Three-Letter Acronyms for the Families of Vascular Plants: A Device for More Effective Herbarium Curation". Taxon. 31 (1): 74–88. doi:10.2307/1220592. JSTOR   1220592.
  4. Nilsen, K. D.; Nilsen, A. P. (1995). "Literary Metaphors and Other Linguistic Innovations in Computer Language". The English Journal. 84 (6): 65–71. JSTOR   820897.
  5. Steven Vickers ZX81 Basic Programming, Sinclair Research Limited, page 161 "As you can see, everything has a three letter abbreviation (TLA)."
  6. TDA Progress Report R. Hull (1982) An Introduction to the new Productivity Information Management System page 176
  7. On the cruelty of really teaching computer science
  8. Dan Gookin (1992) The Microsoft Guide to Optimizing Windows page 211
  9. "DigiSpeak: A Glossary of the New Lingo". bryn mawr alumnae bulletin. Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Association. May 2011. Retrieved August 14, 2016.
  10. Douglas Adams, The Independent on Sunday, 1999