Do You Know the Meaning of These Common Acronyms?


By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

Acronyms are a shortening of lengthy phrases, especially when they are frequently used in speech and writing, and to say the whole thing every time would be unwieldy. Examples are "NATO" and "NAFTA." 

Of course, you can go overboard in using acronyms -- and Americans, who see ourselves as perpetually crunched for time, are particularly guilty of this. Mail carriers and other USPS employees get very frustrated with people who create their own acronyms for city names, thinking, "Hey, everybody knows that "TAC" is "Tacoma!" So, if you want to be sure you'll be understood, stick to the shortenings that have been around a while, that everyone agrees on. 

However, sometimes we run into the opposite problem: acronyms that have been around so long, and are so commonly used, that people have begun to forget what they originally stood for. Are you sure, for example,  you know the long forms of "AT&T," "IBM," or "CBS"? You might be surprised by what you learn. Some of the full names, in the case of companies more than a century old, are actually rather dated. The companies or organizations behind them are probably happiest being referred to by their acronym, not their full name. 

How confident are you that you know what's what in the world of acronyms? Take our quiz now and find out. BoL! ("Best of Luck!" ... and yes, we know that's not a legit acronym!)


AA was founded by "Bill W." and is one of the best-known treatment programs for alcoholism in the world. However, exact numbers of those treated are hard to come by, since, as the name indicates, privacy is key.



This one was probably fairly easy. The FBI is one of the best-known government agencies, partly because it is a favorite subject of TV and movies -- including "The X-files," the subject matter of which is pretty far afield from what the FBI actually does!



The term "UFO" arose in the 1950s, replacing terms like "flying disc." That term was too specific about the shape of the object, which wasn't always disc-like, and it implied the UFO was some kind of alien craft, when in fact most are explainable terrestrial phenomena.



"LOL" has been mistaken for "Lots of Love," with unfortunate consequences. One widely-circulated anecdote tells the story of a woman who responded to a death in a friend's family by typing, "So sorry to hear. LOL."



We all love British baking shows, it's true! But the BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation.



Many people might say "automatic," but it isn't really -- you still have to use the keypad. Or you could avoid the whole issue by saying "cash machine" instead.



MMA came about when fighters in different styles wanted a way to compare their skills via a head-to-head fight. Senator John McCain has called MMA "human cock fighting," though he's since softened his stance.



OK, you probably found this one easy. "NBA" is a straightforward acronym -- and it helps that basketball is one of the most popular sports in America.



The "Administration" part is what tricks people. But this isn't just an "association" of like-minded people. It's a government-affiliated agency.



Nowadays, you don't have to be young, male OR Christian to use these facilities, which are now largely inexpensive gyms for the public. But the name has stuck, since "the A" sounds unimpressive.



Did you know that "the SAT" no longer stands for anything, according to the College Board that manages it? The "A" used to stand for "Aptitude," then for "Assessment." Finally, the College Board decided the name "SAT" was so famous it could stand alone.



NATO is one of those acronyms so common that many people don't remember the full name. But it's "Atlantic," and comprises 29 nations, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere.



The DEA is the branch of U.S. federal law enforcement that deals with drug crimes. It is substantially aided, though, by the FBI and U.S. Customs.



The CIA is informally known to its agents as "the Company." Its role is intelligence-gathering, often overseas. Don't confuse it with the FBI.



The HMO was a response to rising health care costs. It offers lower costs for consumers and their employers (if a workplace-based plan), but also fewer choices in providers.



The AARP is a well-known name in America. It's active in lobbying Congress on issues affecting retired people, and also runs a magazine providing health and lifestyle advice for seniors.



Social Security is a kind of national pension program in which employees and employers both pay into during their working lives, then get a monthly check after retirement. It was founded in the early 20th century to prevent poverty among the elderly.



This is a term that arose on Internet message boards. Is the speaker always being genuinely humble? Not really!



Where do we sign up to be part of Good People of America? Is there an entrance exam?



This acronym is sometimes pronounced as the word "WHO." It is run by the United Nations and headquartered in Geneva.



NAFTA is a pact signed by Mexico, the US, and Canada. It was signed during the Clinton administration, but had been in the works for some time before that.



The UFC is America's reigning MMA-fight-promotion company. Walk past any sports bar in the US, and you'll see posters advertising their next pay-per-view.



This gets used during a real-time Internet chat -- for example, if you want to get up and fix yourself some hot chocolate. It's less necessary in the age of video chat.



Fun fact: NBC used to be the acronym for the "National Biscuit Company." Nowadays, you know them as "Nabisco."



MFA programs are advanced programs in writing, painting, and so forth.



If you use a computer (and current evidence suggests you do), you know what a USB is, if not how to define it. It's a name for any kind of connector that uses a universal (hence the name) connector at the end, the one with the familiar narrow-trapezoid shape.



Surprised? Many people think the "A" is for "American." And they might not remember that the second "T" is for "Telegraph." It's all pretty dated for a now-global high-technology company, but changing the name now would probably require millions of dollars of re-branding.



Quod Erat Demonstratum means "which has been shown." Don't say "Quod Erat Demonstrandum," which would mean "which has been needs to be shown," which doesn't make any sense. (An "andus" or "andum" construction in Latin means "should" or "needs to.")



IBM coined its name long before computers as we know them existed. Now, like AT&T, it's deeply involved in high technology, but has kept its old-fashioned name.



Despite its similarity to the name "SAT," for "Scholastic Aptitude/Assessment Test," it's not the "Legal Scholastic Aptitude (or Assessment) Test." The LSAT, as its name implies, is for those college graduates wishing to advance to law school.



The Oxford English Dictionary is generally agreed to be the ultimate authority on what is or isn't part of the English language (British English, at least). If you've ever seen an unabridged edition, it was probably on a stand somewhere in a library, because it's too big and heavy to easily put on and take off a shelf.



"Columbia" is a kind of poetic name for America, derived from Christopher Columbus. And, though it might seem odd, the "S" stands for "System" -- though in what way a network is a "system," we're not sure.



"Before the Common Era" and "Common Era" are replacements for the Christian-centered terms "B.C." and "A.D." Many people still use the latter, informally, but university professors and educators usually apply the more neutral terms.



This one is for our English friends! The OBE is a medal given to British nationals or others who have made contributions to the English nation in a variety of fields: art, science, public service, and so on.


Bonus question: What is the difference between an acronym and an initialism?

The Chicago Manual of Style explains that "AIDS" is an acronym, and "BBC" an initialism. It further goes on to introduce the term "contraction," which is when the first and last letter of the word is used, e.g. "Mr."


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