Too many acronyms
FYI a friend sent me an article on the pervasiveness of acronyms today; the push for more and more acronyms is probably driven by the desire to fit more words into a 140 characters text message.
BTW I am simply reprinting what was sent to me; without my usual edit of spelling and grammar.
This article is from the August 15 issue of The Australian Digital Edition.
The acronyms are coming. Marching across the language in their thousands, blunt, unlovely, artificial abbreviations, easy to coin and virtually ineradicable, forcing out perfectly good words and replacing them with ugly initials. Acronyms are the grey squirrels of language.
Two acronymic films will be competing at the box office: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and the Bond movie, Spectre (Special Executive for Counterintelligence , Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion).
The men from U.N.C.L.E. fight an evil organisation called Thrush (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity), whereas before taking on Spectre, 007 was locked in battle with Smersh, a genuine Russian acronym for smert shpionem (death to spies), a wartime Soviet counter-intelligence unit. The return of the spy acronym to our screens is just one reflection of the spread of initial-letter abbreviations, a linguistic plague caused by war, technology and the pressure to condense language into gobbets of text, or 140 characters or fewer.
Language purists distinguish between proper acronyms, abbreviations that form a pronounceable word using initial letters, and initialisms, expressed as individual letters. PM (for prime minister) is an initialism, where POTUS (President of the US), and his wife, FLOTUS (First Lady), are acronyms. Some are hybrids, both acronym and initialism, such as JPEG.
The term acronym is often used to cover all abbreviations formed from initials, including “backronyms” : an existing word contrived into an acronym by arranging other words. The most egregious example is the 2001 Act Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terror: the USA Patriot Act.
Some acronyms are so sturdy and longstanding they have genuinely entered the language: who remembers that scuba stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or that Joseph Cyril Bamford, pioneer of earthmoving equipment, gave us the JCB? The Man from U.N.C.L.E. succeeds in sounding both avuncular and spooky.
But most modern acronyms, particularly those emerging from the internet and the radical condensation of language demanded by mobile technology, do more to obstruct meaning than clarify it, forming a sub-language that, like all jargon, is designed to exclude and baffle the uninitiated. Some acronyms elongate rather than abbreviate: “world wide web” is a punchy three syllables, whereas “double-you double-you doubleyou ” is three times as long.
In more leisurely times, there was little pressure to coin spacesaving acronyms. True, the Roman Empire adopted SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) as its official title, but the explosion in acronyms did not occur until the 20th century. Today, the website acronymfinder.com has more than five million acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations. Twentieth-century war played a large part in the spread of acronymophilia, since the military have always had a knack for obscuring the reality of armed conflict with complex technical acronyms. Documents from the American Civil War contain not a single military acronym; the number vastly increased in the First World War, and then exploded in the second, bringing us AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and countless others. The current leader is COMNAVSEACOMBATSYSENGSTA , which stands for Commander, Naval Sea Combat Systems Engineering Station.
Messages written on the outside of envelopes by Second World War soldiers to girlfriends forged an entire lexicon of acronyms: SWALK (Signed With A Loving Kiss), HOLLAND (Hoping Our Loves Lives And Never Dies) and BURMA (Be Upstairs Ready My Angel). Today they seem a little sad, a sort of wartime sexting.
Business, industry, education and governments love acronyms, which often lend a spurious air of official purpose to the mundane. Medical literature has become so littered with them there are moves to drop them in favour of terms written in actual words.
FDR, the first acronymic president, created dozens of offices to administer the New Deal, each with its own initials, causing one critic to claim that his government was “drowning in an alphabet soup” . So many US politicians have launched legislation with artificial acronyms that one congressman, only half in jest, recently proposed the Accountability and Congressional Responsibility On Naming Your Motions (Acronym) Act of 2015.
Most new acronyms do not create words, but compact existing words into a reductive slang. The restrictions of text and tweet have forged a new acronymic vocabulary: LOL (Laugh Out Loud), BTW (By The Way) and OMG (Oh! My God; it was used in 1917).
The acronym was intended to be concise, economical and efficient. But there are now so many, that instead of bringing clarity they often sow confusion: NATO is, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, but it is also the Nepal Association of Tour Operators and, in textspeak, Not Altogether Thought Out.
We need to stop abbreviating everything. We need the Society To Prevent Automatically Coining Ridiculous Overwrought New and Yet Misleading Shorthand.