25 of the Most Confusing Acronyms and Initialisms

The business world loves its abbreviations ... but it’s not the only one.
If you know, you know.
If you know, you know. / (Search bar) tommy/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; (Background) carduus/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images
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Acronyms and initialisms are a great way to save time on writing or saying unwieldy phrases, from graphics interchange format (GIF) to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Many of us know how it feels to not recognize an abbreviation and ask the internet to fill in the blanks.

Letter Solver recently conducted a study to find out which ones people Google the most. First, researchers compiled a list of nearly 170 popular acronyms and initialisms across five different categories: dating, gaming, business, technology, and U.S. state abbreviations. They then ranked them based on the average monthly search volume for that term plus the word meaning (or, for U.S. states, the question “What state is [abbreviation]”).

It’s not a foolproof survey. For one thing, it’s impossible to prove that every person who searches “KPI meaning,” for example, is trying to find out what the letters KPI stand for. Some people might already know they’re short for key performance indicator, and they’re looking for an actual definition of that concept. 

Moreover, some abbreviations are short for more than one phrase and/or are used in more than one context. ASL can refer to American Sign Language or age/sex/location—a quick way to solicit those details from someone in chat rooms and other virtual spaces. Letter Solver classified ASL in the dating category, but it’s likely that at least some of its 87,000 average monthly searches involve American Sign Language.

MVP is a similar story: It can stand for most valuable player, so Letter Solver listed it under gaming. That said, not only is MVP (in the most valuable player sense) used widely outside the world of video games, but it can also be short for minimum viable product—a bare-bones yet functional prototype of a product that clients can test in order to inform further development. So it’s possible that some search volume that belongs in the business or tech category is padding MVP’s performance in the gaming section of this study.

You can definitely argue that these ambiguities support that MVP, ASL, and other multifaceted abbreviations belong on a list of the most confusing ones—but this particular ranking wasn’t based on the number of phrases a single abbreviation stands for, nor the number of contexts in which you can use it.

But it’s still interesting to see what people are Googling even if we don’t know exactly what they’re referring to or how to classify the searches. Plus, plenty of the terms are pretty unambiguous: It’s probably safe to assume that CEO, for instance, almost always stands for chief executive officer.

It’s also worth noting the difference between acronyms and initialisms. An acronym is an abbreviation pronounced as a word—like SCUBA, which is technically short for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. If you say the individual letters in the abbreviation—like CEO, MVP, and nearly all the other terms in Letter Solver’s survey, it’s an initialism.

See the top five terms in each category below, and find out what other abbreviations made the lists here.

U.S. States

Ranking

Abbreviation

Meaning

Average Monthly Search Volume

1.

ME

Maine

23,000

2.

MA

Massachusetts

15,000

3.

MI

Michigan

14,000

4.

MO

Missouri

12,000

5.

MS

Mississippi

9600

Business

Ranking

Abbreviation

Meaning

Average Monthly Search Volume

1.

KPI

Key performance indicator

63,000

2.

WFH

Work from home

41,000

3.

ROI

Return on investment

31,000

4.

CEO

Chief executive officer

30,000

5.

ETF

Exchange-traded fund

29,000

Tech

Ranking

Abbreviation

Meaning

Average Monthly Search Volume

1.

API

Application programming interface

57,000

2.

CRM

Customer relationship management

52,000

3.

VPN

Virtual private network

49,000

4.

SaaS

Software as a service

37,000

5.

SEO

Search engine optimization

27,000

Dating

Ranking

Abbreviation

Meaning

Average Monthly Search Volume

1.

FWB

Friends with benefits

101,000

2.

ASL

Age, sex, location

87,000

3.

ENM

Ethically non-monogamous

71,000

4.

DTF

Down to “frolic” or another f-word

64,000

5.

PDA

Public display of affection

62,000

Gaming

Ranking

Abbreviation

Meaning

Average Monthly Search Volume

1.

NPC

Non-playable/playing character

108,000

2.

AFK

Away from keyboard

42,000

3.

MVP

Most valuable player

16,000

4.

MMO

Massively multiplayer online (game)

13,000

5.

RPG

Role-playing game

12,000