How Did We Get Here?
Radio Detection and Ranging = radar
Light/Laser Detection and Ranging = lidar (LiDAR? LIDAR? LADAR?)
How did the spelling of these acronyms evolve/devolve? Collectively, the world develops colloquial words and phrases in professional and everyday jargon. At what point did the phrase ‘Light/Laser Detection And Ranging’ gain four acceptable versions of spelling: LiDAR (mixed case), lidar (all lowercase), LIDAR (all caps), and LADAR (all caps)? Lidar’s cousin acronym, radar, sheds light on the origins but not the divergent paths the spelling incurred. Eighty years ago RADAR popularity rose quickly as an important technology through regular and routine use, therefore lowercase radar became a legitimate word in the commonplace, much like SCUBA or LASER have today. Even military CARE packages have acronym origins. Common origins should lead to common spelling—but not here.
The n-gram model is a computational linguistics and probability model which attempts to predict the next item in a sequence, such as a word, syllable, or phrase in a sentence. Google’s Ngram Viewer charts, year by year, the twists and turns of cultural and professional trending vernacular within published literature utilizing this model. The Ngram Viewer can be an interesting tool to see how events affect trends. The Watergate scandal of 1972 shows an abrupt Ngram increase in 1972 as we would expect. The database records only go to 2008 because Google is busy scanning in our most recent literature, therefore events of 2009 to 2014 are nonexistent or just on the horizon, such as the iPad (which has no Ngrams). With ‘the vs. thee‘ argument we can see usage of ‘thee‘ has faded over time whereas ‘the‘ remained relatively steady in comparison. We can use the Ngram Viewer to search for various spellings for the same word too, such as lidar or LiDAR and U.S.A. or USA. The Google database is massive, having scanned millions of printed lit. The inclusion of text books and fiction alike, along with digital publications, allows insight into culture but also technologies. Please enjoy analyzing trends with the Google Ngram Viewer and see for yourself how common vernacular is evolving/devolving.
Figure 1 RADAR vs. RaDAR vs. radar (1930-2008, English) [i]
The lowercase spelling for ‘RAdio Detection and Ranging’ was coined in 1939 by the U.S. military and the industry began using it as a standard immediately. We can see the spike in use around 1939 in Figure 1 above. Interesting to note the similar mixed case acronym for radar has never appeared in written text; “Ngrams not found: RaDAR.” This means no published literature in Google’s databases uses the mixed case spelled ‘RaDAR’ and only a small percentage have the all capitals versus the lowercase version.
Figure 2 lidar vs. LiDAR vs. LIDAR vs. LADAR (1950-2008, English)[ii]
‘LIght Detection And Ranging’ (also with LAser for LADAR) had similar beginnings as RADAR, though the industry standard has taken on a variety of spellings in the last twenty years. As you can see in Figure 2 the mixed case use is gaining popularity whereas the lowercase version is diminishing. What purpose did the collective see by hyperbolizing a 50 year standard to a new one? Does ‘LiDAR’ look stronger, smarter, new-age, superior to its lowercase cousin? Is lidar and LIDAR the past, yet LiDAR the future? The use of this technology (by any name) is becoming more prevalent, cheaper, and ultimately more important, therefore a standard should be solidified.
To add fuel to the fire and confusion to the community, LADAR is used primarily in Europe as a fourth possibility. LADAR is never found in all lowercase or mixed form, only all capital letters. LADAR changes the entire root origins because it is claimed the first letter stands for laser. Therefore, LAser replaces LIght. As to which is correct, laser or light? Written English leans toward light because laser includes the word light (laser: light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) so an acronym would be ill-suited to include an acronym. The community seems to be slowly fading LADAR usage out and never fading in a third acronym abbreviation, known as “Laser Infrared Detection and Ranging” (with only one all caps version).
What’s the Word?
With any written form, lidar, LiDAR, or all caps LIDAR, the versions are pronounced the same way. The pronunciation[iii] fits the same model radar gave us.
lī ‘– där = “lī” as in lie + “där” as in dark
rā – där = “rā” as in ray + “där” as in dark
One word with multiple accepted spellings? That’s similar to a geographer allowing ‘GEOgraphy’ as an acceptable spelling. Google defines the origin of radar as an acronym, whereas the origin of lidar is a combination of “light+radar”. As that could be true, in reality the word ‘lidar’ is an acronym and should be treated in the same manner radar was/is/will be. As a collective group, the lidar community is steering the jargon to the newest of versions as a new standard however grammatically incorrect. It’s ultimately up to the user/writer to determine which spelling is best for the purpose of the document.
The DEM User’s Manual, 2nd edition[iv] remarks, “like radar and sonar, lidar is now commonly written in lower case” then proceeds to use lowercase lidar through the book. The manual is intended as an informative textbook relaying the physics, concepts, and history of elevation data collection and processing. To regard the word as a lowercase acronym shows awareness of the history and origins of lidar technology. The mixed case version shows up intermittently between 1979 and 1990 but gets a sudden bump in use around 1999. A widespread interest in lidar technology in the 21st century has led to a jumbling of uses, from the original acronym to the subsequent newest version, Figure 2 above. Interesting to note the large number of lidar references with a subsequent drop in lowercase references, which is unequal to the increase in references with different spellings, meaning the total references of all versions have dropped a bit (but only up to 2008, newer data may show a different inclination). Akin to radar, all capped LIDAR versions are an acceptable spelling, though unlike LiDAR, the mixed case RaDAR does not show up in literature. Both radar and lidar have all capped versions but have only appeared intermittently throughout the 20th century, with even less use in the 21st century. The two all capped versions of the acronym have been around just as long as the lowercase versions.
Figure 2 shows that lowercase lidar is not old news just yet and LADAR is the most obscure of all versions. Increases in popularity of the all capped and the mixed case versions (LIDAR and LiDAR) are beginning to battle for superiority in the 21st century as usage have only increases. The scientific community cannot decide on the correct way to phrase or spell this technology. Between the mixed case spellings of radar and lidar, even the origins of lidar are uncertain, whether ‘and’ should be capitalized, Figure 3. In reality, since each abbreviated word is an acronym, the common use should be all capital letters, akin to NASA or NATO. The ultimate answer to which is correct will be decided by the lidar community. The version that is used the most will inevitably become the victor.
Figure 3 LiDAR broken down into different versions (1960-2008) – Light Detection and Ranging vs. Light Detection And Ranging vs. Laser Detection and Ranging vs. Laser Detection And Ranging (no Ngrams) [v]