Seriously, check your acronyms

A number of years ago, two Australian opera companies merged and the board wanted a new name to reflect the new entity. They landed on ‘Australian National Opera’, ANO, for short. Unfortunately, ‘ano’, in Italian, means ‘anus.’

Seriously, check your acronyms

At first, they didn’t believe that it was a problem. It was only when it was pointed out to them that opera folk who sing in Italian a lot might not want to work for an ars*h*le that they finally abandoned this idea and called themselves Opera Australia*.

So, how did they miss this?
Quite simply, they thought they’d created an initialism, when they’d actually created an acronym.

A what?

Bear with me.

Shortened forms

Acronyms and initialisms are shortened forms that use the first letters of the names they represent. The difference is in the way you pronounce them.

For example, QANTAS and RMIT are both are shortened forms. QANTAS is short for ‘Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services’ and RMIT is short for ‘Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’.

  • QANTAS is an acronym because we read it as a whole word.
  • RMIT is an initialism because we say each of the letters individually.

Why should you care about this? Because it can affect your brand.


Acronyms and initialisms are really important for branding. We all want a snappy way for people to remember what we’re offering, and sometimes, our official business terminology is too long for that.

So, we create shortened forms. The trick is to create something memorable but not one that offends. So, to eliminate any nasty surprises, follow these four steps:

  1. Create your shortened form.
  2. Write a couple of different sentences with it in them and ask everyone you know to read them aloud.
  3. Note how they pronounce the shortened form.
    • Did they create a different meaning from what you intended?
    • What different pronunciations do they come up with?
    • Are any of them offensive or inappropriate in English?
  4. Even if you don’t do any work internationally, it’s a good idea to do a quick web search in a couple of key languages to test if your acronym has a different meaning in these languages.

Branding is everything

Of course, there are times when a dodgy acronym can work in your favour.

In 2017, it was widely put about that the official Australian space agency was called ‘Australian Research and Space Exploration’ (short form, ARSE).

It’s not, but the people behind ARSE have made use of this clever bit of branding to help them sell merchandise and talk about space exploration. So, they’re having a bit of fun with it.

Business writing expertise

Shortened forms are tricky, but not impossible to get right. Just take a moment to review the proposed term and you’ll be sure not to make an ‘ano’ of yourself.

*Timing Is Everything: A life Backstage at the Opera, by Moffatt Oxenbauld (ABC Books)

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