Acronyms, idioms, and spelling program(me)s

I’ve a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Links and excerpts follow.

An FYI on acronyms clarifies the difference between acronyms and initialisms, before showing how technological changes have affected them, as revealed in the recent update to Macmillan Dictionary:

Some new entries, such as API, BYOD, and QR code, explicitly reflect the significant role of technology in altering the lexical and cultural landscape. With the spread of wi-fi, the online–offline divide has become increasingly blurred, so it’s no surprise that some internet-born abbreviations have become more word-like as they’ve spread beyond jargon and slang. ROFL all you like, but people have begun to rofle.

Read on to witness more newcomers to the acronym scene, new definitions for old-timers, and my first (and surely last) use of YOLO.


An idiom that has its cake and eats it looks at a puzzling old expression that “crumbles under examination”:

Part of the trouble is the order of events. The phrase makes more sense when recast as eat your cake and have it too, since this is more self-evidently impossible. Indeed, it’s how the phrase was first constructed. The later sequence of having your cake and eating it arose in the mid-18th century, and appears to have overtaken the original in the early 20th.

Alfred Cheney Johnston cakeThere are other problems with the phrase too, such as the obvious question of why anyone would want to hold onto cake in the first place: unlike the proverbial miser’s gold, it doesn’t keep. You can share the puzzlement here – and the cake, if there’s any left.


Finally, Get with the spelling program(me) addresses something often overlooked about the familiar subject of UK/US spelling differences: why does BrE have programme but not anagramme or diagramme? History has the answer; but first, an etymological note:

The modern term programming language accidentally plays on the word’s etymology. Program comes from Late Latin programma ‘proclamation’, from a combination of pro- ‘forth’ + graphein ‘to write’ (the same root we find in telegram and anagram). Curiously, program is how the word entered English in the 17th century, and was used especially by Scottish writers.

Read the rest at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, or delve into my archives for more.

[Old cake image via Wikimedia Commons]

6 Responses to Acronyms, idioms, and spelling program(me)s

  1. Roger says:

    Of interest because of where it comes from: “Spell it Out: the Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling” is fresh from David Crystal’s book factory. It has 37 brief “chapters” across only 278 pages; one, typically, deals with “Unpredictability”. Like Aubrey, it lets brevity be its guide, which is better for readers like me who doze as easily as they read. It has occasional Punch cartoons, old ones from about a 100 years ago, a few *photos, and a teaching appendix that follows the main section.
    *Someone’s programme wouldn’t let me spell photos any other way;
    no /pho-toes/, please — but programmed to allow program(me) (?)

  2. Roger says:

    I’d like to see comparisons among languages. English spelling is probably the “worst” among European languages, meaning the lowest in matchfulness of spelling and pronunciation.

    Second and third are probably French and German, but German can claim consistency. Besides, they just had a reform
    — which hasn’t gone over with all Germans, not even with those
    inside Germany, let alone in Austria or with the Swiss; nor, presumably, with German speakers around the world.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    I had always heard it this way: “Having one’s cake and eating it TOO” which makes a little more sense. It’s either one or the other.
    Not that I ever kept cake. Even for a minute. But I had a brother who would torture the rest of us by keeping his until ours was gone. He still does that. At 60. And laughs evilly.


  4. Stan says:

    Roger: Crystal’s book on spelling is on my list – he’s always fun and enlightening to read. As for English spelling’s consistency compared to other languages: maybe this has been quantified. I’d imagine someone has looked at it systematically, but I don’t know offhand.

    WWW: That reading treats the actions as simultaneous rather than sequential, and the expression is certainly more logical that way. Your brother is clearly a talented tease!

  5. On a recent trip to a bookshop I saw a book by David Crystal and bought it, without further inspection, on the assumption that if a book is by David Crystal, that is all you need to know about it.

    Unfortunately, it was “A Little Book of Language“, which I would consider suitable for an intellectually-curious eight-year-old child, but to me it’s just patronising and irritating. Apparently not all books by David Crystal are written for the same audience.

    What this amounts to is that I have a David Crystal book to give away… :-)

    • Stan says:

      Adrian: That’s a pity. I don’t have A Little Book of Language, and never felt the urge to pick it up. Some of his books are pretty technical, but obviously others are aimed at a very general audience – too general for linguistic adepts such as yourself. Many more fall somewhere in the middle, I guess.

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