Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article describes three-letter acronyms. For other uses of the term TLA, see TLA (disambiguation).
The TLA (Three-Letter Acronym or Abbreviation) is the most popular type of abbreviation in computing and telecom terminology and Internet slang, and is also common in political jargon. There is some disagreement about whether abbreviations like TLA actually constitute acronyms (see acronym and initialism), and this has led to the increasing use of the word abbreviation as opposed to acronym in expanding the term. However, the expansion "three letter acronym" is the older and more frequently cited one.
"TLA" is, of course, a TLA itself; the term was almost certainly coined with a certain degree of self-referential humor in mind. Likewise, a four-letter abbreviation is sometimes known as a FLAB (Four Letter ABbreviation), an ETLA or XTLA (Extended TLA), an LFLA (Longer Four Letter Abbreviation) or a TLA/E (TLA/Extended) - although all these are far less common than TLA. In the same vein, VLFLA is a Very Long Five Letter Abbreviation and DETLA is a Doubly-Extended Three Letter Abbreviation.
TLAs became common in the United States during the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who is frequently referred to as FDR). Terms from this period included NRA for National Recovery Administration, and TVA for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Detractors of President Roosevelt's policies called the new agencies "alphabet soup."
Using only upper-case letters, there are 26³ = 17576 possible three-letter abbreviations, and probably most of them are already used in some context. If numbers, special characters, or case-sensitivity are allowed, even more TLAs can be created.
Many TLAs have more than one meaning: TLA itself is also a TLA for the Theater of the Living Arts. There are many TLAs with more than 10 meanings (for example, SDI has at least 36 meanings in the English language). Furthermore, many abbreviations have more than one expansion with the same meaning. For example GCC was first 'GNU C Compiler', and later 'GNU Compiler Collection'. (See also backronym.)
In the MS-DOS operating system for personal computers, because only three-letter file extensions (usually denoting the file type) were allowed, many longer abbreviations were shortened to three letters (for example JPEG to JPG, HTML to HTM), and many of these are still used. DOS itself is a TLA for 'Disk Operating System' as well.
Many abbreviations, some of them TLAs, come from the shortened names of Usenet groups. For example pra for pl.rec.anime.
TLAs are typically pronounced as initialisms (i.e., Tee Ell Ay) and written in all capital letters. Some, however are acronyms, and are pronouned as words (e.g., RAM). TLAs are pluralized by adding s (as in TLAs). The possessive is formed by adding apostrophe s (as in TLA's). Increasing numbers of TLAs, and other abbreviations, are showing Redundant Acronym Syndrome, in which usually the last of the abbreviated words is added to the TLA (for example, ATM machine, PIN number, HIV virus). Purists recommend avoiding RAS syndrome, especially in formal writing such as technical writing.
Common categories of TLAs
- household: PVC, PET
- corporations: BBC, CNN, IBM, DEC
- banking: ATM, EFT-POS, PIN
- time zones: GMT, UTC, DST
- sports: NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL
- individuals: JFK, LBJ, GWB, FDR
- politics: NGO, GOP, DNC, NDP, ANC, PAC
- government: the American DOD, DOE, HUD, IRS, CIA, the British CPS, MOD, MI5, MI6, SIS, HRH
- military: SAS, APC, POW
- paramilitary: PLO, ETA, NPA, IRA, ASU of the IRA, various Northern Irish Loyalist groups, the Colombian left-wing ELN
- medicine: AAA , EKG, EMT, MRI, PVC, TOE, HIV
- drugs: ASA, THC, XTC, LSD, PCP
A significant number of TLAs come from various codes:
- IATA airport codes: LAX, MSQ, SFO, NGO (see Lists of TLAs, below)
- ISO 639 (language names): ara, eng, spa
- ISO 3166-1 alpha-3 (country codes): USA, SCG, UAE
- ISO 4217 (currency codes): RUR, USD
- SIL codes for languages: ENG, FRN, SWD, BQT
- IOC country codes: FRA, GBR, GER, JAP (see Lists of TLAs)
- AAR railroad reporting marks: CNW, CSX, GBW
Lists of TLAs
- Table of all possible TLAs from AAA to DZZ
- Table of all possible TLAs from EAA to HZZ
- Table of all possible TLAs from IAA to LZZ
- Table of all possible TLAs from MAA to PZZ
- Table of all possible TLAs from QAA to TZZ
- Table of all possible TLAs from UAA to XZZ
- Table of all possible TLAs from YAA to ZZZ
- IATA airport codes (which are all TLAs)
- List of IOC country codes (also all TLAs)
- four-character idiom
- list of acronyms and initialisms
- list of all two-letter combinations
- list of computing and IT abbreviations
- list of three-letter broadcast callsigns in the United States
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