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If you have an abbreviation that reads like a word, should you pronounce it like the word it reads like, or the words it came from?

For example, in the software development world there is a JAR (abbreviation of Java ARchive), and there is also a WAR (abbreviation of Web ARchive).

In the first case people usually say jar as in a jam jar, but in the latter case some people say war (as in first world war), whereas I say war to rhyme with jar. I claim that I'm using the 'ar' from the start of 'archive'. Who is right?

P.S. sorry if my terminology is all wrong.

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  • It's rather arbitrary. For instance, as this entry at Wikipedia indicates, different people may pronounce the same abbreviation as either an acronym (strict sense) or an initialism: FAQ: ([fæk] or ef-ay-cue) frequently asked question Aug 22, 2014 at 15:12
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    Not sure I would call it arbitrary - ease of articulation has a lot to do with it - but I agree that the pronunciation is not rule driven. It is more of a convention. I was thinking of Nato, were the -ay- does not reflect the initial [a] of Atlantic. Incidentally, I have never heard of FAQ being anything but ef-ay-cue, probably because 'fak' is too close to an obscenity in my country. I am quite curious about where Wiki gets that one from. Aug 22, 2014 at 15:23

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I don't think that you can generalize your way to a predictable rule about how a new acronym will be pronounced—in part because a lot of factors—some of them quit unpredictable—are in play.

One strong influence, as both you and Alison Hunt recognize, relates to existing words that are spelled the same or similarly. This influence can actually pull in two different directions: toward adopting the same pronunciation (as happens when people pronounce WAR identically to war), and away from the matching sound (as happens when people pronounce WAR to rhyme with far).

The arguments on both sides are not entirely unreasonable either: Adopting the existing pronunciation means not introducing yet another "new word" to the world; but on the other hand a different pronunciation avoids confusion in a world where the established word is much more likely to be assumed in the absence of a special explanation.

But looking a random sample of acronyms, I don't see much evidence that the way a letter in an acronym is pronounced in the word it comes from influences the way the acronym is pronounced. Consider these three examples: FEMA, SCSI, and URL.

FEMA is the abbreviated name of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the E in the acronym is indeed pronounced like the E in Emergency; but the A in the acronym does not match the pronunciation of the A in Agency. If original letter sounds determined pronunciation, we would expect FEMA to be pronounced "feemay"—but it isn't.

SCSI is the abbreviation for the Small Computer System Interface, so a strict adherence to the sound of the represented letters in the acronym would be something like "sksih"; but because tech people loved the idea of saying "scuzzy" all the time, that's the pronunciation that stuck.

And finally URL, for uniform resource locator, is sometimes pronounced as an initialism ("U-R-L") and sometimes as an acronym that rhymes with the aristocratic noun earl. It appears that very few people consistently pronounce it "yoorl."

The situation with WAR is not yet settled, and I have heard people use the rhymes-with-far pronunciation. If that's the pronunciation that you would like to see win out, then by all means use it that way yourself—the more frequently (and persuasively), the better. But I wouldn't recommend appealing to the original letter-sound pronunciations of the acronym to bolster your advocacy, because there just isn't any there there.

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If an acronym spells out a common word then that's how people will say it. No doubt about it. It's also how they'll remember it. With an acronym like WAR, it's automatic. If you don't pronounce it like WWII, you're needlessly creating a new word. More importantly, people have trouble remembering new words. They like the familiar because you don't have to remember a word you already know. Common sense.

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