05 January 2006

A Question of Usage

So why do we say "NASA" but "the USAF"? Obviously if I said, "United States Air Force," or "National Aeronautics and Space Administration," I would put a "the" in front of it. So I can see why the "the" would carry over to the acronym. But why not consistently?

Come to think of it, I think I usually say "the ESA." But it's hard to tell, because no one knows what that stands for except fellow space enthusiasts, so I don't say it often. I definitely do say "the KGB," though, but I'm almost always actually talking about the FGB. I should just call it Zarya or whatever its stupid fancy-pretty name is. And what were the Italians thinking when they named their cargo containers Michaelango, Leonardo, and Raffaello? Please.

Aha! I think I've got it! When we say "NASA," we pronounce it "Nah-suh," but when we say "USAF," we pronounce it "Yoo Ess Ay Eff" (or at least I do, when I'm not pronouncing it "Air Force"). That must be why.

But when I try to think of another acronym we pronounce like a word rather than letter-by-letter, all I come up with is SCUBA and LASER. And, unfortunately, I do say "the LASER." So I guess my theory is shot. Although one could argue that "laser" is more of an adjective than a noun these days, as in "the laser beam."

Regardless, I pronounce MRO "Mister O." And I pronounce "MER-1" and "MER-2" "Spirit" and "Opportunity."

Anyway, since I brought the KGB up earlier, WOLVERINES!!!

(I was Jed Eckert.)


Blogger KMM said...

What about NATO or AIDS? They're also acronyms, instead of an initialism like USAF. Laser and scuba have actually gotten to the point where the fact that they're acronyms has been forgotten. Some wit somewhere coined the spoonerism "anacronym" for them. So it's not surprising that you'll say the in front of them. I'd say that the definite article only goes with acronyms, and not with initialisms as a fair general rule.

What's always gotten me was phrases like "the hoi polloi" or "the alcohol" or even "the ATM machine" hoi and al- both mean "the" and ATM stands for Automated Teller Machine. Why do we have to repeat ourselves by forgetting what the word, anacroymn or phrase we started with stood for in the first place?

2:12 PM  

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