The Myths of ISO

The Myths of ISO

Eye-es-oh or eye-soh? Not as simple as you think! Tip: Don't believe everything you read on the internet.

According to the International Organization for Standardization, the abbreviation for their name is ISO. ISO goes on to explain that you pronounce the abbreviation as a word: eye-soh. ISO says that the abbreviation and its pronunciation are based on the Greek root word for equal: isos. I believe that this is a little bit of revisionism — doublespeak, if you will.

Eye-soh or Ee-Soh

The International Organization for Standardization was founded in London in 1946. The founders decided to use three official languages: English, French, and Russian. Politically expedient at the end of World War II perhaps, but not efficient for sorting out nomenclature. In English, the Organization is known as International Organization for Standardization; in French, Organisation internationale de normalisation; and, in Russian, Международная организация по стандартизации (Mezhdunarodnaya organizatsiya po standartizatsii). In examining their own history, the Organization notes that if they were to use an acronym or an initialism as an abbreviation, they would be stuck with three different versions: IOS in English, OIN in French, and MOC in Russian. The organization further explains that because no single acronym or initialism would work in all three languages, they instead settled on ISO as an abbreviation. According to the Organization, the abbreviation ISO is reportedly derived from the Greek word isos, which translates roughly into equal (in English):

Because 'International Organization for Standardization' would have different acronyms in different languages (IOS in English, OIN in French for Organisation internationale de normalisation), our founders decided to give it the short form ISO. ISO is derived from the Greek isos, meaning equal. Whatever the country, whatever the language, we are always ISO.

Hence, the claim that ISO is pronounced eye-soh as an acronym (as a word), not spelled out as an initialism. At least that’s what the cool kids have been telling me. There’s even a slick video and website:

I’d beg to differ though. The Greek word is pronounced ae-soh-s or ee-soh-s. Not eye-soh-s. So, I’m a little suspicious of this pronunciation. Why select a Greek root word and then mispronounce it?

Sure, they can call themselves whatever they want, but this origin story seems fishy. I think we need to look deeper.


I’d suggest that the organization did in fact select an out-of-order initialism to represent the different potential acronyms and initialisms. Instead of picking IOS, OIN, or MOC, they went with something that didn’t put any one of the three official languages to the fore. How do I know this?  

Willy Kuert. 

Willy Kuert was one of the founders of ISO. He was interviewed at some point between 1947 and 1997 about the founding of the organization. His recollections are the only publicly available accounts of the meetings in London in 1946. In fact, at the time of publication, Kuert was the only survivor of the London meetings. Extracts of his interview were published in the ISO publication: Friendship Among Equals: Recollections from ISO’s first fifty years. Basically, Kuert calls hogwash on the Greek root word story, claiming instead that the abbreviation was chosen because it was short and appealed to all of the attendees. 

It’s in the first full paragraph of page 20:

The first question that had to be settled in London was that of the name of the new organization. There were different proposals. The English and the Americans wanted “International Standards Coordinating Association.” But we fought against the word “coordinating.” It was too limited. In the end, ISO was chosen. I think it is good; it is short. I recently read that the name ISO was chosen because iso is a Greek term meaning “equal.” There was no mention of that in London!

ISO dial. Image from Jud McCrainie, Wikimedia, Creative Commons 2.5.

It would seem that the Organization has created a romantic backstory to the selection of a simple abbreviation. So, if the Greek root isn’t the rationale, where does ISO come from? And, more importantly, how do we pronounce it?

I've corresponded with two experts in the field of ISO's history, JoAnne Yates of MIT Sloan School (yeah, that MIT) and Craig Murphy of Wellesley College. Together, they've written two books on the subject, Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880 and The International Organization for Standardization (ISO): Global Governance Through Voluntary Consensus. Yates explained to me that in all her research into the founding of ISO, she can't recollect ever coming across any discussions about how to pronounce the abbreviation. Interestingly, Murphy explained that he expects that the pronunciation is related to how vowels are pronounced in different languages. I think we're on to something with this. If you're interested in going deeper, the books look very interesting, especially if you have an engineering or international relations bent.  

Now What?

The question remains, how do you pronounce ISO? Kuert's story doesn't explain that. 

It isn’t a word or acronym, it’s in all capitals. I’d suggest that like most initialisms, you should pronounce each letter. However, as Murphy and Yates pointed out, if you're Henri Cartier-Bresson, that will sound like ee-s-oh. Different than if you're Richard Avedon and it sounds like eye-es-oh. Which will also sound different if you're Helmut Newton, in which case its ih-ess-oh. 

In my opinion, this is where the confusion arose. Just like FBI, UK, and USSR are pronounced differently depending on where you live, ISO was as well. I'm guessing that this in turn led to ISO looking to create some kind of uniformity. That is, after all, what they do.

So, where do you land? Is it an acronym, like NATO or NASA, or is it an initialism like FBI, UK, or USSR? Do you pronounce it as a word or a series of initials? 

More importantly, why do you do it?

Certainly, ISO wants you to pronounce it eye-so, and who am I to argue? Frankly, I'd just like a little bit of transparency. Until then, I simply like the sound of eye-es-oh better. It makes more sense that the founders, a group of engineers and scientists, picked the name as an initialism instead of some nonsensical word. 

Whichever way it might be pronounced, I don’t want to hear anyone tell me its related to Greek root words anymore.

Funny that ISO’s slogan is: “When the world agrees.”

Lead image from Jud McCranie, used under Creative Commons 2.5.

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Previous comments
Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Aah...the world was a lot simpler then. But I still don't want to go back to shooting film.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

You say I-SO, ISO, IS-O I say A-S-A, A-SA or ASSA care I not!

Tony Northrup's picture

Thanks for looking deep into this!

I have a friend named Diane. Everyone reads that as Die-Anne, but she pronounces it Dee-Awn. So, that's also how I pronounce it, even though it's different from how I learned to pronounce that name.

If her parents wanted it pronounced Die-Anne despite her preference, I'd still say Dee-Awn, because it's her name, and I believe we are the 100% authority on our own names. How could anyone argue with you over how to pronounce your own name?

Diane responds to either pronunciation, and no matter how you say ISO, everyone understands. It's not a life-or-death situation. But as a matter of respect (and ISO deserves our respect) I do my best to say everyone's name the way they prefer.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Good point. I agree in principle with your argument.
I still don’t like the story they spin as a justification for the particular pronunciation.
Why not just asked to be called what they want? Why make up a story? It feels disingenuous at best, and, given the regulatory type nature of their business, self-aggrandizingly sinister at worst. After all, if they are EQUAL, who could ever compete.

Paul Asselin's picture

My name is spelled P A U L, but I prefer to be called George Clooney

Paul Asselin's picture

BTW Tony, didn't you argue with some success that ISO is a meaningless number? I'd argue that makes the pronunciation even more meaningless.

I blame the same crowd who harp on about when an American makes a video and uses measurements he or she is accustomed to, who then is trolled by those who use metric. The pronunciation of ISO is one big tolling gag that some have taken to a whole other level in a failed attempt to sound as if they know something that you don't

ASA is just a lot easier to pronounce

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

I it sounds more film-y. Also, since none of us who commented here are likely to meet each other in real life, does it matter how each of us pronounces ISO?

Spy Black's picture

"According to the International Organization for Standardization, the abbreviation for their name is ISO."

...because Apple would sue them if they called it IOS...

Martin Van Londen's picture

Old school broadcast video guys: Eye-sow...

Spy Black's picture

I always wondered how ASA became ISO...

Christopher Boles's picture

How did IOS get to ISO? Bring back ASA/DIN...then everything is equal across the board as ISO/ASA/DIN. Is there really anything equal about ISO? Does it go in steps of 2x or 1/3rds? To add fuel to the fire, maybe we need an ISO standard for "noise" in a photo? They could go in steps of 5 up to 100, so your photo has a noise level of 15 after it was corrected from 60. Now there is something to chew on.

'The Greek word is pronounced ae-soh-s or ee-soh-s. Not eye-soh-s. So, I’m a little suspicious of this pronunciation.'

In modern Greek, the word is pronounced ee-soh or ee-sohs (depending on its part of speech), but in English, Greek words that start with iso- are pronounced eye-so:
etc etc etc

I'm not saying that the word's origin is Greek, but your suspicion doesn't add to the argument.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I maintain that the idea was to avoid putting any one language first, especially English. In that case, if it’s supposed to be a Greek word, shouldn’t the pronunciation be closer to Greek? Which it isn’t. Thoughts?