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National CrossTalk Spring 2000
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Acronyms Are Rapidly Gaining Ground

By Todd Sallo

DENNIS THE MENACE cups his hand to the telephone and yells to his father in the next room, "It's some guy using letters, Dad. What does IRS spell?" Well, some of us might say it spells trouble. But the point is that our lives today are literally awash in "letters" -- abbreviations, coded words and phrases, a sort of alphabet soup that requires a certain amount of translation even for native speakers.

"IRS" has a lot of company. FBI, PTA, SUV, CPR, CD-ROM, MRI, NFL, NAACP, NCAA, NATO, NASA, NAFTA, NASDAQ -- the list is almost literally endless.

Although abbreviations such as these -- formed by combining the initial letters of a series of words -- are commonly called acronyms, linguists and language purists insist there is a fine distinction to be made. Technically, only those abbreviations that are pronounceable as words are considered to be acronyms. So, for example, AIDS is an acronym, while HIV is termed an initialism. Some choose to call them all abbreviations, and leave it at that.

But, since "acronym" comes from the Greek words akros (tip) and onym (name), its definition seems broad enough, for the purposes of this article, to include all such abbreviated forms.

Whatever we call them, there is no doubt that they are plentiful. The vast and growing popularity of acronyms is considered by many linguists to be the most interesting and widespread development in modern language usage. A basic search for acronyms on the Internet reveals thousands of sites, many of which contain thousands -- even hundreds of thousands -- of listings.

Some of the sites are specific to the government, higher education, various industries or scientific disciplines, and are essential glossaries for people who work, or conduct research, in those fields. At one site specializing in things military, for instance, acronyms are divided alphabetically. There are nearly 400 pages, defining more than 3,500 acronyms -- and that's just the ones beginning with the letter A.

The sheer volume of acronyms in use today is astounding. And while much of it is serious business, some of it can be quite entertaining.

In many cases, acronyms for organizations or causes clearly were conceived first, and a phrase was crafted after the fact to fit those letters. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) is a good example, as is its reactionary counterpart, DAMM (Drunks Against Mad Mothers). Others include: PUSH (People United to Save Humanity); TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More); SCRAP (Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts); START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty); FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting); DARE (Drug Awareness Resistance Education); and CARE (Committee on American Relief in Europe).

One of the funniest is NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), a government agency that issues warnings about impending weather disturbances, including, no doubt, notifying us in advance of any catastrophic floods.

Some acronyms of this type are so strained in their origins as to be ridiculous. For instance, a group that advocates the liberalization of laws against prostitution is called COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), and an anti-drug program called CRACK (Children Require a Caring Kommunity) is willing to spell "community" with a K to fulfill its important acronymic mission. One government program to combat the "Y2K problem" was named FRAMEWORK (Formal Risk Assessment, Millennium Engineers, Work-around Options, Replacement policy, Keep going).

The higher education community seems to have a special affinity for acronyms, perhaps surpassed only by the government. And people in the education field are especially adept at coming up with clever titles:

HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally); ABLE (Adult Basic Learning Education); HEAL (Health Education and Adult Literacy); STEP (Summer Training and Education Program); WISE (Washington Internships for Students of Engineering); and FIRST (Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching).

The American College of Healthcare Executives has a particularly ironic acronym: ACHE. One can't help but wonder what they were thinking when they chose that name. On the other hand, AAACE (American Association for Adult and Continuing Education) reveals, if nothing else, a desire to be listed first in the phone book.

One higher education program called DTEFLA (Diploma in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language to Adults) changed its name to the catchier -- though grammatically incorrect -- DELTA (Diploma in English Language Teaching for Adults). Nice dangling participle. Maybe some of these ESL teachers should take an English class.

Acronyms that spell common names are very popular in higher education: ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center); PLATO (Programmed Logic/Learning for Automated Teaching Operations); ANETTE (Academic Network for Technology Transfer in Europe); CARL (California Academic and Research Librarians); ABE (Adult Basic Education); JANET (Joint Academic NETwork); STAN (Science Teachers' Association of Nigeria); even JESUS (Job Entry System of the University of Saskatchewan).

GALILEO (GeorgiA LIbrary LEarning Online) is a bit of a reach, but deserves an honorable mention for creativity.

While so much effort is exerted in twisting the language to form these words and names, some acronyms end up being unintentionally funny, or even problematic. One good example is the Pan-European Network Information Service -- PENIS, for short. Not surprisingly, when the founders of the organization learned of their unfortunate error, they quickly changed their name to Trans-European Network Information Service. TENIS, anyone?

Interestingly, the common usage of acronyms is almost exclusively a phenomenon of the 20th century. But there are earlier examples. Ancient monuments reveal that people abbreviated words from the beginning of alphabetic writing, and there are a number of well-known acronyms, such as COD, that date back to the 19th century.

Some linguists argue that the earliest known acronym comes from the ancient Hebrew scriptures, in which the mysterious "unspeakable" name of God is represented by a series of four characters (YHWH or JHVH). The characters originally were intended to be more of a place-holder than a pronounceable word, but some scholars who were not familiar with Jewish theology mistook those four letters to be the actual name of God -- hence the transliterations Yahweh and Jehovah.

Another very old acronym that still is in common usage is AD, often printed in small capital letters, much like am and pm (which stand for ante meridiem, before midday, and post meridiem, after midday, by the way). AD is derived from Anno Domini (year of our lord), not from "After Death." But AD isn't as old as it sounds. It is clear that the ancient Romans did not use it, and the Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citing is from 1579.

The earliest recognized American acronym is "OK." It first showed up in print in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839, where it appeared as "O.K. -- All Correct." In the context of the times, deliberate misspellings were considered very funny, and were a common part of humorous writing. So, while other theories abound, it generally is assumed that OK originated as an abbreviation for the intentionally misspelled "Oll Korrect."

Part of the reason why acronyms were relatively rare prior to the 20th century is that people have to be literate to understand and use them. The growth in literacy and the proliferation of the printed word in the 19th century created a much more fertile environment for all sorts of abbreviations.

Still, it was not until the World Wars and the explosion of government programs in the 1930s that the American penchant for acronyms truly took off. A large number of acronyms quickly became well known.

A given acronym becomes a part of the language through repetition. Some, like CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), clearly reveal their alphabetic origin, and most people know what the letters stand for. Some, like TNT, become so familiar as acronyms that their origin is all but forgotten. Everyone knows what TNT does, but few are aware that it stands for TriNitro Toluene. (Some might invoke Turner Network Television, a more recent expansion.)

Finally, in some cases an acronym is so firmly ingrained in the popular culture that it literally becomes a word. Editors stop capitalizing its letters, in resignation to popular trend, and people forget that it ever was an acronym in the first place. Words like laser, radar, scuba and snafu are good examples: (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation; Radio Detection And Ranging; Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus; and Situation Normal All "Fouled" Up, respectively).

Today's stock market offers a perfect example of how this works. NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations) has become a common word, and many publications have begun printing it simply as Nasdaq. A few in the media, who pride themselves on being "hip," have started referring to it as "the Nazz."

If the printing press started the acronym ball rolling, the personal computer has turned it into a runaway freight train. The rise of typography has led, understandably, to a desire for abbreviation. And as the keyboard becomes an increasingly popular medium for communication, growing numbers of people will embrace and use acronyms, both for convenience and for entertainment.

IRC (Internet Related Communication) is all the rage today. Entire Web sites are devoted to glossaries of "chat acronyms," symbols, code words and abbreviated phrases of every conceivable variety. It actually has become something of a game. One site even ranks the acronyms according to such barometers as "IRC usefulness, geek points, wittiness and unpronounceability."

Familiar expressions such as FYI (for your information) and ASAP (as soon as possible), have been joined by the likes of: HAND (have a nice day); TTFN (ta-ta for now); IMHO (in my humble opinion); WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get); TWIMC (to whom it may concern); and YGIAGAM (your guess is as good as mine).

Particularly rewarding are PCMCIA (people can't memorize computer industry acronyms) and YABA (yet another bloody acronym).

If this trend continues, the time may come when all our communication is in abbreviated form. Perhaps our computers will automatically search huge databases of such expressions, and translate for us, saving humanity from at least some of the tyranny of the keyboard. Then again, perhaps the keyboard, and CTS (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome), will become obsolete first. Where is all this leading? YGIAGAM.

Well, TTFN.

Todd Sallo is an editor and production manager for National CrossTalk.

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