ACRONYM SOUP

a sometimes irritating medley of the English alphabet,
corn and schmaltz – all in the interest of brevity

The expansion of our English language is not only a direct result of the integration of slang into our vocabulary, but also the trend of making altogether too many common phrases or compound terms into acronyms and over-using these acronyms in both written and spoken word.

Breaking stride mid-sentence, we exchange several words we were going to speak with a spoken three or four letter acronym, as if the acronym was a real word. This “exchange policy” becomes automatic to the point where we don’t think about it, we just do it. There’s a decision that has to be made in the brain as to whether or not to use an acronym or the literal “translation” thereof. And this decision is determined by other decisions: who we are talking to, whether or not the person will understand the acronym, among others. Finally, in a matter of nanoseconds, the acronym is chosen.

We sprinkle our sentences with acronyms as a diner with an unsophisticated palate would over-season his or her food. We spit out compound acronyms and cast a spell of self-importance and superiority. We’re a silly lot, we humans.

Listening to the radio or watching television provides plenty of examples of folks all wrapped up in steaming hot bowls of acronym soup. Life used to be so much simpler when we only had alphabet soup.

In the preparation of this piece, a referral to The Dictionary was necessary. I’m not known for having great spelling skills and am not too proud to frequently visit the works of Webster. Dyslexia was the target for one of my more recent quests. It was during this seach for the word “dyslexia” that I came to the startling realization that it’s time to buy a new dictionary, as the word did not reside in the edition of Webster’s that graces my office desk.

some definitions

We use acronyms as if they were real words. But what defines a real word? A visit to a well worn dictionary, its fabric faced covers lovingly stained with years of accumulated oil from hands taking it from the bookshelf, opening, closing, and returning to the shelf, provides the following:

WORD: an articulate sound or series of sounds which symolizes and communicates an idea: the smallest unit of speech that has meaning when taken by itself.

ABBREVIATION: act or result of making make briefer; to reduce or shorten, as words, by contraction or by omission, sometimes by substitution.

And finally,

ACRONYM: a word formed from the initial letters or syllables of the successive parts of a compound term. Acronymic, acronymize

Here’s a list of but a few arenas and respective acronyms and abbreviations I’ve stumbled across over the past few days.

computer life

  • CPU – central processing unit
  • MPS – megabytes per second
  • DPI – dots per inch
  • BPS – baud per second
  • KBPS – kilobaud per second
  • RAM – random access memory
  • ROM – read only memory
  • SRAM – static random access memory
  • USB – universal serial buss
  • RGB – red green blue
  • ISP – internet service provider
  • CGA – color graphics adapter
  • VGA – video graphics adapter
  • SVGA – super video graphics adapter (I’m just waiting for the computer world to come out with a SDVGA monitor – the super duper video graphics adapter ...)

government

Our Uncle is overflowing with acronyms for various departments, branches, agencies and services. To wit:

  • DoD – Department of Defense
  • NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • OSHA – Occupational Safety and Health Administration
  • FBI – Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • CIA – Central Intelligence Administration
  • NSA – National Security Administration
  • FCC – Federal Communications Commission
  • FDIC – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation

everyday lives of everyday people

  • AST, EST, CST, MST, PST - the major North American time zones, Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific Standard Times
  • PDQ - Pretty Damn Quick
  • SNAFU - Situation Normal – All Fouled Up
  • FUBAR - fouled up beyond all recognition
  • ETD - Estimated Time of Departure
  • ETA - Estimated Time of Arrival
  • USPO, USPS – United States Post Office, United States Postal Service

automotive

  • MPG – miles per gallon
  • EPA – Environmental Protection Agency
  • MPH – miles per hour
  • RPM – revolutions per minute

commerce

  • CST – Connecticut State Tax
  • MSRP – manufacturers’ suggested retail price
  • YTD – year to date interest on banking statements
  • ROI – return on investment

medicine

  • OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder
  • ADD – attention deficit disorder
  • ODD – oppositional defiant disorder
  • MRI – magnetic resonance imaging
  • CAT – computerized axial tomography
  • BP – blood pressure
  • and that old favorite of mine, BM – bowel movement

military

  • ICBM – intercontinental ballistic missile
  • USAF – United States Air Force
  • USN – United States Navy
  • SDI – Starwars Defense Initiative
  • RADAR – RAdio Detection And Ranging

enter the internet

Contrary to what some may think, acronym-like abbreviations used in Internet chat rooms weren’t invented there. Perhaps the best known abbreviation, SOS, is, of course, radioman shorthand for “Save Our Ship,” a message frantically tapped out on a telegraph key and broadcast over the airwaves from the Titanic and other like-doomed vessels.

Morse’s code first ushered in abbreviations and acronyms used by landline telegraphy operators working for companies like Western Union. Then with the marriage of Morse Code and Marconi’s invention of the radio, communications between distant points without interconnecting wires became commonplace, and even more electronic shorthand was born.

And radio teletype systems were the first vehicles for the exchange of emoticons (emotional icons) – smilies and winks – in the form of ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) characters. You see, although the Internet is relatively new, it has roots that go all the way back to the 1800s.

Here are a few chat room abbreviations you may be familiar with:

  • LOL – laughing out loud
  • IRL – in real life
  • ROFL – rolling on floor laughing
  • LMAO – laughing my ass off
  • BRB – be right back
  • BBL – be back later
  • BBIAB – be back in a bit
  • AFK – away from keyboard

I remember an editor once taking me under his wing and advising: ”Jeff, you have to know your audience. But if you aren’t sure of your audience’s level of understanding, you have to define abbreviations. Think of mathematics and lowest common denominator when writing to the masses.” And this brings us to the inevitable.

“hello 911? I’d like to report an acronym collision”

We’re going to be needing a lot of Alphabet Ambulances, or AAs (not to be confused with the acronym for members of Alcoholics Anonymous) because there are going to be many acronym collisions in our future, as an acronym can have more than one meaning.

I’ve fallen prey to using one abbreviation or acronym only to find out later that the letter combination also serves a completely different collection of words. Curiosity got the best of me on this, so the search was on for more. Here is a very brief list of some acronym/abbreviation collisions gleaned from searching the Internet with the keywords “common acronyms,” and the collisions thereof.

  • STD – Sexually Transmitted Disease and Short Term Disability – if you pick up an STD, then there’s a good chance an STD in horizontal bedroom exercising will follow


  • CC – Carbon Copy and Cubic Centimeter – if you reduce the usage of cc on your correspondence, a corresponding reduction in cc of ink usage will result.


  • ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act and American Dental Association – is there mutual aid from both organizations for the dentally challenged?


  • CAP – Civil Air Patrol and Community Action Program – isn’t the CAP a CAP?


  • DOT – Department Of Transportation and Dictionary of Occupational Titles – does the DOT have a DOT for its employees?


  • MS – Mississippi and Manuscript – if you’re writing an article on the State of Mississippi, when hardcopy is submitted to a publisher, you’re submitting your MS MS.


  • OT - Over Time and Old Testament – Seminary students cramming for final exams probably work OT reading the OT.


  • ETA – Employment and Training Administration and Estimated Time of Arrival – if you have an appointment at the Employment and Training Administration, you’d have an ETA at the ETA?


  • PI – Private Investigator and Personal Income - if you hire a PI, it will cost you some of your PI.


  • MD – Middle Dutch and Medical Doctor – if you drink some funky water in The Netherlands, you’re probably going to be visiting an MD MD.


  • UI – Underwriters Labs and Unemployment Insurance – if there’s a layoff at UI, will affected workers get UI compensation from UI?


  • SAD – Standard American Diet and Seasonal Affect Disorder – does the SAD cause SAD?


  • IS – International Standard and Information Services and – without an IS in IS, chaos reigns.


  • OT – Occupational Therapist, Occupational Therapy and Over Time – without an OT giving you OT, it’s doubtful you’ll be getting any OT at work.

And now for a couple of my personal favorites:

  • NSA - National Security Administration and Non-surgical Sperm Aspiration – to aspire to climb the career ladder at NSA may require significant NSA

Hopefully the term “acronym collision” won’t be acronymized, because there is already a long standing acronym AC, an abbreviation used in the electrical field for alternating current. However, the thoughts of the new term “acronym collision” causing an acronym collision is just too delicious to not ponder: AC causing an AC with AC. Yikes!

in closing

One source on the Internet, and I’ll be damned if I can’t find it now, reported a general rule of thumb when using acronyms that went something like, “when using acronyms, writers are advised to use both the acronym and the literal translation so as to avoid confusion.”

This would be especially important to writers paid by the word, because money is money, and if you’re paid by the word you may as well load ‘em up! Hell, I am usually ROFLMFAO (rolling on floor, laughing my freaking ass off) when I do a word count on an essay, knowing full well that I’ve spiked the punch with a healthy helping of acronyms and their requisite definitions ...

I think I’m finished. No, I’m not ...

Though perhaps inappropriate to end this with an oddball observation, I can’t help wonder how many dyslexics quickly glanced at the title of this piece and muttered to themselves, “That’s a silly title: ‘My Acorn Soup.’”

Copyright © 2003 by Jeff Bauer
All rights reserved

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Text - Copyright © 2003 Jeff Bauer
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Revised – Thursday, September 8, 2005