There are many complex acronyms that aren't necessarily built from the beginning letter of each sub-unit syllable or word (examples at the end of this post). Sometimes these terms are so common making it clear doesn't matter. But when defining your own new acronyms for use in a formal publication, whats the best way to help the reader see the selection of letters that is part of the much easier to use acronym?

A point of clarification: I am not specifically talking about acronyms like "laser" or "scuba" as these have become ubiquitous and even better known than the sequence they actually represent and seem to rarely be defined. I want to reiterate that I am inventing an acronym, and want it clear what combination of letters was selected in the creation of this so that it remains relatively easy to use. I won't go so far as to say I want it to catch on, but that doesn't mean it hasn't made it easier to use.

I see two options:

  • emphasizing the capitals (though this can really look funny, and in science, could even change the meaning, so it's probably not a universal solution, but in cases when it doesn't change the meaning would this really be desirable?)
  • use bolds, but really don't think any editor would keep this...

Here are some examples taken from wikipedia and presented with my interpretations of capitals, bolds, and how in a scientific context they may not end up being equivalent:

  • Interpol = International Criminal Police Organization = INTERnational Criminal POLice Organization
  • Gestapo = Geheime Staatspolizei = GEheime STAatsPOlizei
  • Amphetamine = alpha-methylphenethylamine != Alpha-MethylPHenEThylAMINE
  • I know Google Books doesn't record italicisation, but it ignores non-letters (except insofar as an indexedable "word" is any sequence of letters bounded by non-letters). So if you check out the hits for Interpol International you'll find that in many if not most of them, the context is the acronym immediately followed by the "definition". Clearly UPPER CASE is [almost?] never used. Personally I think italics/bold is just patronising misuse of modern DTP typesetting features. – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '16 at 22:01
  • (If I wondered why Gestapo was thus named, I'd be irritated by someone gleefully "educating" me that it stands for "Geheime Staatspolizei"; I'm not so dumb I can't see the letters. I just don't happen to know what "Geheime" means in a foreign language.) – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '16 at 22:04
  • The examples with bold text are far more legible than those using uppercase. – grateful Jul 20 '16 at 22:05
  • 'use bolds, but [I] really don't think any editor would keep this' indicates that you really know where to ask this question. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 20 '16 at 22:17
  • @FumbleFingers I understand your point when the word can be researched, but let me try a more complex example: "full first use then parenthesis abbreviation (FUSTIAN)". This FUSTIAN ex. is ludicrous, I am not great at coming up with examples on the spot.I want it to demonstrate that it's a little harder to identify which letters contributed in what order. Obviously, your acronym is context specific and has to fit grammatically, but if it can't be verified anywhere else, I don't think I'm accusing anyone of being dumb. – EngBIRD Jul 20 '16 at 22:34

You have to expect your reader is reasonably intelligent. They will be able to infer where the acronym came from the same way you did, by seeing. Therefore simply write:

  • The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) began investigating...

  • The Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) actively engaged in....

  • Administering alpha-methylphenethylamine (Amphetamine) to the rats...

Of course, this method is generally used when you go on to refer to the thing as how you cite it in parenthesis later on. If you do not refer to it again in that manner, then explain it in narrative (e.g., The International Criminal Police Organization, commonly known as Interpol, began investigating...). People don't need italics or bold to see, for example, that "Interpol" is a portmanteau of "international" and "police."

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