In the second half of our acronym study, Jonathan Meades traces it back to the battlefield ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010
ETA is an acronym. ETA is also an initialism. The first is a two-syllable word, Etta. It stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom). The second is three distinct letters: Ee Tee Ay, Estimated Time (of) Arrival. What these near-twins have in common is that they are both abbreviations and of military origin.
Take another acronym and initialism: OGS (Oh Gee Ess) and GOPWO (Gop-wo), both British coinages of the second world war. Conscripts soon learn to behave with the doubtful decorum of professional soldiers. Men forced into proximity with each other will find ribald solace in competitive, vulgar inventions which mimic strait-laced constructions such as ADC (aide de camp), GOC (general officer commanding), AWOL (absent without leave), etc. The pithiest or most brutal of these inventions will stick. Thus a GOPWO, a grossly over-promoted warrant officer: one who began as a private and went up through the non-commissioned ranks rather than graduating from Sandhurst or similar. These days, it means grossly over-priced web operator.
In post-war British society, fraught with marginal snobberies, an officer’s background remained an object of scrutiny. The civilian female near-equivalent of a GOPWO was a counter-jumper, a shop assistant supposedly on the qui vive for a rich male customer. OGS might have been just the ticket for her. In the war, an officer’s ground sheet was a jocularly misogynistic epithet for an opportunistic sexual partner in uniform—a member of the WRAC (Women’s Royal Army Corps), the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) or the WLA (Women’s Land Army).
It is a truism that the development of everything from medicines to meteorology has depended on the prosecution of wars. This version of events flatters our paranoia, our fearful fondness of sombre forces. And the paraphernalia of armed conflict—secrecy, adrenalin, ruthlessness, dirty tricks, machismo, gadgets—can exert an attraction on those who have never known war. Its allure overlooks the actuality of boredom and body bags.
The further we are from military life, the more seductive its supposed traits. A corporation’s ends will most probably be different from the armed forces'—less killing, for instance. But the means are there to be aped, the tics to be imitated: the speed, the modernity, the purposefulness, the can-do. Above all, the language.
In the corporate world (CoWo), as in the military, curtness has come to equal efficiency. Just add up all those saved seconds. They grow into minutes, hours, days. It saves breath, tons of the stuff, which can be kept for achieving goals. It says: think positive. It says it loudly.
Curtness has been greedily adopted by CoWo via the blight of managerialism, the faith (no other word will do) that all enterprises are susceptible to the same theoretical models of management. Thus a trainee dog-food executive—let us call him Crozier—can rise through media sales, advertising, sports administration and public utilities to run a broadcaster. This quasi-hieratic caste pretends to be post-ideological yet believes in a catechism of attributes: conformism, seizure of power, measurable results (of immeasurable phenomena), service delivery, primacy of economic performance, contempt for non-vocational learning, justifiable means, out-sourcery, IRP (inhuman resource patterning), BPD (best practice diagnostics).
Managerialism’s grip on our governance is a consequence of the growth of a professionally political class which has little experience of anything other than committees, “research”, disinformation and slogan-creation, aka (also known as) branding. A desire that the public sector should not only mimic the private sector but cohabit with it has led to a reliance on technocratic managerialism. Welcome to the bankrupt world of the PFI (private finance initiative) and the PPP (public-private partnership). The affectless jargon of the managers is a sort of trahison des clercs by linguistic means. Like Latin 800 years ago, it is the language of the new masters.
Real slang is base poetry. The coinages of football terraces, crack dens, stoops, cottages, barracks and bars are vital. Like life itself they are grimly funny, wounding, unfair, harrowing, disrespectful. They have no place in the po-faced world of spreadsheets, bullet points, Cranfield, matrix standards, trunk-branch-tag, helicopter views, USW (und so weiter). Slang is joyfully dystopian. It caricatures and exaggerates the imperfections of an already imperfect world.
It goes without saying that jargon, of which acronyms and initialisms are important subsets, is neither joyful nor dystopian. It aspires instead to that most lethally infantile of programmes, the prescription of the conditions of a better world, a tidier place, the playground of tyrants. One agency of such a programme, the NSDAP (National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei, the German Workers’ National Socialist Party), was a prodigious creator of acronymic entities, the most notorious of them the morally squalid apparatus of state terror, the GESTAPO (Geheime Staatspolizei, secret state police).
The Soviet Union was tireless in its coinages. After it was the Cheka and before it became the KGB (Komityet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti), the Soviet secret police was, successively, the GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MGB and MVD. Now it’s the FSB. In northern Moscow there is even a bizarre acronymic park, a former exhibition site full of social realist kitsch: VDNKh (Vystavka Dostizhenij Narodnogo Khozjaistva; the People’s Economic Achievement Show, “Vedenkah”).
The reckless and the suicidal apart, no subject of such a regime would have dared to re-engineer an acronym to stand for something entirely different, in the way that the American military had the cheek to adapt SFA, so that sweet fuck all turned into security fault analysis.
Before the 2006 World Cup, the French football team was routinely described in an excess of multiracial smugness as BBB (bey bey bey: blanc, black, Beur—white, black, Arab). Beur is verlan, back slang—à l’envers—for Arab, though since going mainstream it has been re-reversed, so the word in the banlieue is now reub. In 2005 the French contrarian Alain Finkielkraut suggested that BBB should mean black black black. His almost accurate observation infuriated the anti-racism establishment, whose censoriousness is more appropriate to that of a totalitarian dictatorship than a liberal democracy. (France is just as shackled by PC as Britain, though it sulks and agonises more before accepting its strictures.)
This fuss over very little shows that acronyms and initialisms are even less neutral than other sorts of word. They are fluid, prone to lurches in meaning: it took a generation for the epithet “piss artist” to move from signifying a braggart to a drunkard. It took however long it takes to say “black” three times to shatter a nation’s delusion. All words can be weapons, and acronyms are looser cannons than most.