Monday, January 19, 2009

Acronyms - Is it ZIP code or zip code?

One of my favorite blogs, Red Pen, Inc., recently included a post about the acronym "ZIP" as in "ZIP code." The gist of the post was that the "ZIP" in "ZIP code" should always be capitalized because it is an acronym. I am not so sure that I agree with this thinking, therefore, I sent the following comment:

Just like metaphors that are usually classified as either living or dead, I would think that this acronym could be classified as dead because the word "zip" seems to have taken on its own meaning that is not associated with the acronym. Also, this meaning of "zip" seems to have become accepted as part of the standard lexicon of English.

Interestingly, the OED lists the "zip" of "zip code" in lower case letters and does not mention anything about the need for capitalization.

After sending this comment, I continued to think about etymology and language change. Language is constantly changing and when a change in the definition of a word (or acronym, I would argue) becomes accepted as part of the standard lexicon that is when the original meaning is considered dead. The original, acronymical meaning of zip is "Zone Improvement Plan," as named by the U.S. Postal Service in 1963. I think it is noteworthy, however, that the Online Etymology Dictionary states the acronym was, "no doubt chosen with conscious echo of the verb zip meaning 'move rapidly'."

It is apparent to me that the "move rapidly" definition of "zip" has become accepted as part of the standard lexicon, therefore capitalization should be optional and could soon be obsolete as the acronymical meaning fades entirely.


The Punctuator said...

I agree about "zip". There are several acronyms that have become simple words: scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), radar (radio detection and ranging), and laser (light amplification through stimulated emission of radiation) are a few that spring to mind.

Anonymous said...

ZIP should stay capitalized and bot be lower case just because someone doesn't think it should. Acronyms are upper case for a reason. Just like people frequently say 'towards' instead of 'toward' when there is no such word as 'towards'. So just because people mistakenly say it, does that mean we should automatically accept it into the language? No. People misspeak all the time.
The acronym ZIP makes sense for what it stands for. The test of time shouldn't be the only or ultimate arbiter for whether or not usage or spelling changes, or just because someone says it should. Same for ending sentences with prepositions. Just because people do it all the time in both written and spoken language doesn't mean it's OK (German acronym for 'all correct) to do that.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Anonymous, "towards" is a perfectly acceptable word. When's the last time you checked a dictionary?

Moving Forward said...

So, by the logic above, I should be using LASER instead of laser? People evolve, for better or worse, as does the English language. For arguments sake, I propose that the Zip Code falls into the category of preferred style since the government no longer has it trademarked. Okay (OK)?

Laura Payne said...

Thanks for the laugh, Moving Forward.

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