When did we start speaking in sets of capital letters? Robert Lane Greene looks into the rise of the acronym and its sibling, the initialism

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Autumn 2010

Perhaps the perfect modern movie is the cult classic “Office Space”. The anti-hero, Peter, begins his working day with a dressing-down from a droning boss about forgetting to put the cover-sheets on his TPS reports. We never find out what a TPS report is. Nor do we have to; the name alone tells us all we need to know about the life seeping out of Peter’s days, three capital letters at a time.

Acronyms have become so prevalent that they suffer what anything does when coined without end: devaluation. “Oh, my God” still packs quite a punch in the right circumstances. “OMG”, by contrast, is barely effective as a plaything any more. (“OMG he’s cute.” “OMG is it ten already?”) LOL began life as “laughing out loud”, a way for internet chatterers to explain a long pause in typing. Now, LOL means “you just said something so amusing my lip curled for a moment there.” And how many BFFs will truly be best friends forever?  Teens, with their habit of bleaching once-mighty words (from “awesome” to “fantastic”), can quickly render a coinage banal.

The kids are not ruining the language, though. Grown-ups play the same inflationary game. Walk into any business and a cloud of three-lettered titles surrounds you. The one who used to be just the boss, or the managing director, now styles himself the CEO, for chief executive officer. This alone would be one thing, but it turned into a viral infection: CIO, CTO, CFO, COO, CLO, and so on, for what used to be the heads of technology, finance and operations, and the company lawyer. The so-called C-suite is an allegedly prestigious club, but whither prestige as its ranks swell? Throw in the VPs and SVPs who swarm all over American offices—not just vice-presidents, but senior ones—and everyone is a manager. A study of Linked-In, the networking site, found the number of C- and VP-level members growing three to four times faster than the membership overall. Who, then, is managed any more?

All this seems natural in a technological age, when almost anything we do depends on computers. The first modern computers had acronymic names (ENIAC and UNIVAC), and they set the tone for the subsequent half-century; in fact ever since IBM gave us the cheap PC, homes have been flooded with CPUs (central processing units) that grow in power at an alarming rate, progressing from reading CD-ROMS to downloading MP3s (formerly known as songs) to controlling your HDTV. No one knows what the future of technology holds, but we can be confident it will arrive in a swirl of capital letters.

Acronyms have become so ubiquitous that we look for them even where they don’t exist. They are a major source of the folk etymologies that ping around the internet, etymologies for words that aren’t actually acronyms. “Fuck” isn’t short for “for unlawful carnal knowledge”, “posh” has nothing to do with “port out, starboard home”, and a “tip”, while it might be to insure promptness, certainly doesn’t derive its name from that phrase. All these words are much older than the profusion of acronyms in English. When, in fact, did we start talking in acronyms, and why?

The armed forces have much to do with it. And the American army seems to have contributed more than its share. But acronyms don’t have a particularly long pedigree. You won’t find them in the papers of GEN George Washington or LTG Ulysses Grant. (Grant was occasionally referred to as USG, but this was long before the “United States Government” he fought for was universally known by those same letters in bureaucratese, as it is today.) David Wilton, a linguist, says that a 19th-century “smattering” turned into a flood with the first world war, when one of the most famous among them, AWOL (“absent without leave”), is definitively attested for the first time.

The smattering became a smorgasbord with the coming of FDR—the first president (1933-45) to be known so frequently by his initials alone. Roosevelt brought the New Deal economic programme, and many a pointy-headed planner, to Washington, DC. In the midst of the Great Depression, these idealists thought they could remake society with a host of new government programmes. The long names begged for a shorthand: when the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration were being rushed out of the door, it was natural to dub them the TVA and the WPA.

There may have been another temptation as well. The use of letters as symbols began with the physical sciences: Jons Jacob Berzelius had invented the one- and two-letter system for the chemical elements in 1813, and physicists had unlocked the secrets of the universe with insights from F=MA to E=MC. By analogy, perhaps, something that had an acronym felt scientific and controllable, tempting to government planners in the chaotic world of the mid-20th century. Enter the FBI to police the country, the CIA to spy on others, and the SEC to wrestle with financial markets.

If acronyms meant trying to define something so it could be controlled, this was especially tempting in medicine. Diseases, physical and mental, used to get curt, Germanic names: mumps, measles, madness. (When my paediatrician told me my son had croup, I felt transported to a mud-and-thatch hut in medieval Europe.) But as science progressed, the ailments began to get more Latin- and Greek-derived names: typhoid, cholera, mania, melancholy. Then the late-20th-century version of this trend came along: stringing together a long series of polysyllables to describe an illness—acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and so on. It’s only natural that these would become AIDS and COPD. If croup were discovered today, its lovable monosyllable would have no chance: it would be called acute laryngeal irritation disorder or ALID.

At the same time, clever marketing people seized the chance to get into the medical, or quasi-medical acronym game. Having a hard time getting men to talk to their doctor about certain boudoir-related issues? A clever two-step solves the problem: dub it “erectile dysfunction”, and then since nobody wants to say that either, “ED”. Before you know it, celebrities are advertising your medication.