Texting really brought back the art of abbreviations: LOL, BRB, WTF, BFF, and so on.
But in business and academic writing, many of us use abbreviations without thinking about the words they actually stand for. Sometimes, we may not even know what words the initials denote, which means that we may end up using some group of mystery letters incorrectly. This quick guide to some of the most common, old-school, and occasionally forgotten abbreviations should help you stay on track.
CC: Carbon Copy
Yup, many writers of emails and memos today have never seen or touched carbon paper. (Those who have know why the “touching” is important because the stuff tends to smear black on your hands.) But yeah, to make a copy of something before mimeographs (I’m seriously dating myself now) and photocopiers, we used to crank in two sheets of typing paper with a sheet of carbon paper in-between them and type really hard.
Today, we mostly see CC used on legal paper documents, even though no carbon paper has been involved, or on digital communications to indicate more than one recipient. It’s really not the same thing, but the physical process isn’t as important as the neutrality of “CC,” which simple serves as an announcement that more than one person is going to see the document, not that any one of those people is more important. However . . .
BCC: Blind Carbon Copy
This one isn’t neutral at all. “BCC” conveys the same private (or sneaky) nature of a carbon copy that gets made without the knowledge of the primary (“blind”) recipient.
PS: Post Script
Back when people wrote letters by hand, it was a big deal to go back and revise a letter with missing information, so the PS allowed new and even conflicting information to be added to a letter without scratching things out.
Today, PS is used mostly to be cute or as some other affectation.
et al.: Et Alia (And Others)
Like with many of the abbreviations in this list, Latin is the language of origin. In Latin, “et” is a full word meaning “and.” The only word being abbreviated is “alia” (others), so it’s the one that gets the period (not “et. al.” or “et al” or any such combo).
a.m.: Ante Meridiem
More Latin. “Ante” means “before,” as in “antechamber” or to “ante” by putting in your poker chips before the deal. “Diem” means “day,” and “meridiem” means “midday.”
It’s helpful to know this because people are sometimes confused about whether to use “a.m.” or “p.m.” (Post Meridiem) when it’s right after midnight or noon. The time of one second after midnight is 12:00:01 a.m. because it’s in the half of the day before noon, and one second after noon is 12:00:01 p.m. because it’s in the half of the day after noon.
“Post” means “after” in Latin and English, so we’re good there.
BC/AD: Before Christ/Anno Domini
“Anno” means “year,” as in “anniversary,” and “Domini” means “of God [the Ruler],” as in “dominate.” So, the term in Medieval Latin means “in the year of the Lord.”
But both religious and secular scholars have voiced a dislike in recent centuries for referring to the Christian God whenever they want to put a date on something.
BCE/CE: Before Common Era/Common Era
Use of “before Common Era” to denote the same time period as BC, along with “Common Era” for AD, probably started in the early 1600s. Today, it’s used much more commonly than BC/AD, and it doesn’t require knowledge of Latin.
30: End of Message
Leaving Latin alone for a minute, here’s one from early electronic communications, starting with the telegraph. It’s still used at the end of some press releases and news stories. No one is really sure how “-30-” came to mean “The End,” but there are some fun theories, including that it’s the Arabic numeral version of the Roman numerals XXX, which was used by telegraphers. Another is that it’s a reference to John 19:30 (KJV), which describes when Jesus “gave up the ghost.”
i.e.: Id Est. (That Is)
OK, back to Latin for some important work because I frequently see writers mixing up “i.e.” and “e.g.”
The use of “i.e.” is just a quick way to say you’re going to rephrase what you said. What follows must mean nothing more or less than what you just said.
e.g.: Exempli Gratia (For Example)
And here, what follows are examples or instances of what you’re talking about. The list must not be complete (because then you would use “i.e.”), and because the reader knows the list isn’t complete, “etc.” and the like are not used at the end of the list.
(A quick hint for remembering: look at the first letter so that “i.” is for “I mean” and “e.” is for “example.”)
Etc.: Et Cetera
Latin again: et = and, cetera = so on.
As in, “This is a copy. The original was physically signed by the author.”
RSVP: Please Reply
French this time, not Latin: “Répondez s’il vous plaît (Respond, if you please).” French used to be the language of manners and diplomacy, so this is a classy touch.
cf.: Confer (Compare)
Back to Latin. This is used to indicate you’re offering other material to make a comparison with the topic being discussed.
ibid.: Ibidem (The Same Place)
This is used pretty much exclusively in footnotes and endnotes so that you don’t have to type the same information over and over. However, it’s falling out of favor now because so much reference work is digital, and readers expect to be able to click on a footnote or endnote and be taken directly to the reference. Using “Ibid.” means they have to scroll up to find what they’re looking for.
To finish up, here are three quickies:
ASAP: As Soon as Possible
SWAK: Sealed with a Kiss (aw)
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