Common Abbreviations We Use But Don’t Know The Meaning

abbreviations meanings

We use abbreviations and acronyms all the time, but what do they mean?

The English language uses many forms of word abbreviation.

We use shortened forms increasingly for text messaging to reduce a word or phrase.

Very often these are acronyms using initial letters such as LOL, ROTFL, and BRB.

Common abbreviations

Some forms use a capital letter from the start of each word but are pronounced as words. A good example is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which forms the word, NATO.

Other examples are NASA, POTUS, and SCUBA. If you didn’t know, SCUBA means self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Radar is also an acronym, derived from radio detection and ranging.

Many common abbreviations, however, are pronounced letter by letter.

The United States of America is most commonly referred to as the US or the USA, the United Kingdom as the UK, and the United Nations as the UN.

Another type of abbreviation is one that is based on a foreign language. Very often, these are of Latin origin.

The most common are, e.g., exempli gratia, meaning for example, or for instance,  and, i.e., id est meaning that or in other words.

We use abbreviations and acronyms all the time. But we don’t always know where they came from, how they were derived, or what they literally mean.

Here are six examples of some of the most common expressions we use, but may not fully understand.


1. What does RSVP mean?

If you receive a wedding invitation, the term RSVP is very often included.

It asks you to use a response card and to please respond and advise your acceptance or inability to attend by a certain date.

A new form is RSVP, regrets only. Sometimes this form is truncated to Regrets only. The expression means that you only need to advise if you cannot attend.

RSVP invitations are used less frequently nowadays.

Surprisingly, although the term is an acronym of the French phrase, répondez s’il vous plaît, which means, please respond, the phrase is not used so often in French anymore.

More commonly in French today, the expression, Réponse attendue avant le.. is used. It means, respond by a certain date.


ps i love you

2. What does PS mean?

P.S. is an abbreviation of the Latin term, post scriptum. It means, after what has been written.

We use it at the end of letters, in particular, to indicate an afterthought after the letter was written.

In modern communication, such as email and electronic documents, the use of P.S. serves little purpose any longer.


3. What does sic mean?

The most common form of the word sic is as an adverb to indicate an error in quoted material.

When the person being quoted makes a grammatical error or a spelling error, the person writing the quote inserts sic in square brackets.

It indicates that the quoted text includes errors made in the original quote.

Sic is a Latin word that derives from the expression, sic erat scriptum.

It means, thus it was written, or intentionally so written and indicates that the mistake was in the original document and that it is not a misquote.

It is important to note that you should never write sic when referring to grammatical or spelling variations between British and American English.

While a word might be spelt or spelled incorrectly in US English, it is correct in British English.

The car’s front tyre was flat, so he got the spare from the boot. It would be inappropriate to include brackets, sic here to indicate misspelled words or incorrect use.

Nor would it be right to re-write the quote and change it to, the car’s front tire was flat, so he got the spare from the trunk.

Another more archaic use is, sic transit gloria mundi, is an old Latin phrase that means, thus passes the glory of the world.

Sic is also a verb that means to encourage an attack, particularly by a dog. “Leave me alone, or I’ll sic my dog on you!”


4. What does et al mean?

Et al. is used for three Latin abbreviations.

They are, et alii meaning and others, in particular co-workers, et alia to indicate other things and et alibi for other places.

It is often confused with etc. et caetera, which also mean and the others, other things, or and the rest, but it should never be used to indicate other people.



5. What does SOS mean?

Although s.o.s. is a Latin abbreviation for si opus sit, meaning if there is a need, if the occasion requires or if necessary, it is not the common use.

The SOS radio distress signal is the most common use of this abbreviation.

It is not unusual to think that SOS stands for save our souls or save our ship.

The SOS signal for a ship in distress was devised and based on International Morse Code and wireless telegraph.

The distress signal is three dots for the letter S, and three dashes for the letter O. This combination of dots and dashes was chosen because it was quick and simple for a telegraph operator to send.

This distress signal was first adopted by German government radio regulations in 1905 and became the international standard in 1908.

The steamer SS Arapahoe sent the first SOS distress signal on 11 August 1909.

The signal of the Arapahoe was received by the United Wireless Telegraph Company station at Hatteras, North Carolina, and forwarded to the steamer company’s offices.

At the time, there was another distress signal, CQD. It was used by Marconi International Marine Communication Company and became effective on 1 February 1904.

When the Titanic hit an iceberg, the telegraph operator aboard the ship at first sent CQD distress signals.

On April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic radio operator Jack Phillips initially sent “CQD”, which was still commonly used by British ships.

Harold Bride, the junior radio operator, suggested using “SOS”, saying half-jokingly that it might be his last chance to use the new code.

Phillips thereafter began to alternate between the two. Though Bride survived the sinking, Phillips did not. Source, Wikipedia.

During World War II, suffix codes were added to SOS. SSS indicated an attack by submarine, RRR for a surface raider, AAA for air attack, and QQQ for an unknown attacker.

Between the two wars, the development of audio radio transmitters meant there was a need for a spoken distress phrase.

The word “Mayday” was chosen. It came from the French word, m’aidez, which means help me. It was adopted by the 1927 International Radio Convention as the equivalent of SOS.


6. What does QED mean?

Q.E.D. can also be written QED and sometimes in italics.

It is formed from the first letters of the Latin phrase, quod erat demonstrandum. It means, what was to be shown, or therefore or thus it has been demonstrated.

It is most often used when placed at the end of a mathematical formula or statement to indicate that the proof is full and complete.

Q.E.D. was used by Douglas Adams in this quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“‘I refuse to prove I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’ ‘But,’ says Man, ‘The babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it?

It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so, therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’ ‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.”


Brief wrap-up on an Abbrev.

We use a lot of contractions, abbreviations, and acronyms without thinking about what they literally denote.

A handful of examples are:

N.B. nota bene, meaning please note well.

A.M. ante meridiem for before midday, and P.M. post meridiem for after midday.

AD anno Domini meaning in the year of the Lord.

However, BC is not Latin. It stands for before Christ.

It is worth noting that BC is placed after the year number while AD is placed before the year. For example, AD 1976, but 250 BC. Also, that unusually, neither uses full stops (periods).


P:S: Whether out of pure interest or wanting correct use, sometimes a few short minutes spent investigating set abbreviations is time well spent for any writer.

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent teaching English and writing, as well as testing and taming new technology.

2 thoughts on “Common Abbreviations We Use But Don’t Know The Meaning

  • January 31, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    I knew most of these, but not sic.
    On US and UK English. I am from the UK and use UK English because I don’t know all idioms and spellings in the US, so don’t even attempt it. A mixture would be wrong. Fortunately, I’ve not written any novels set in the USA.

  • January 26, 2019 at 8:15 pm

    Useful and interesting. I did not know the original Latin source of SOS.

    I tend to disagree on the correction of UK or US English as applicable. As an editor, I make sure books are in one or the other. I have had some authors who have written two or more narratives in one novel, set on either side of the Atlantic, and I have ensured that they have stuck to the spelling and idiom appropriate to each.


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