When did we start speaking in sets of capital letters? 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.
The principle of inflation applies here too, though. When I first saw an advertisement promising treatment for “restless leg syndrome, or RLS”, I thought “now they’re just making it up,” trying to sell drugs. It turns out that RLS is a real thing, also known as Wittmaack-Ekbom’s syndrome (as usual, after two of its discoverers). The names of a German and a Swedish scientist seem to me to give a lot more solidity to the syndrome than that triad of capital letters.
Psychology is another realm where many are not convinced that acronymic new “syndromes” and “disorders” are real. No one is insane any more, or even eccentric, or highly strung; they have BPD or OCD (borderline personality disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder). And it’s tempting to think that we might be over-medicalising kids when we talk about their ODD (oppositional-defiant disorder) and ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). In the old days, conservatives grumble, we had a different label for these kids—“badly behaved”—and we treated their condition with a good hard swat. The grumpy reaction against acronymic inflation may be making us ignore real advances in psychology, throwing the scientific baby out with the alphabet-filled bathwater.
The conservative anti-acronym crusader may grind to a halt when considering the business world, which is a long-standing source of acronymy. In 1901 the National Biscuit Company sought a trademark for a new short form of its name—Nabisco. The “co” trend took off, especially with oil companies (Texaco, Conoco, Sunoco), using a different kind of acronym, one that pulls together first syllables, not just letters. But the rise of the initialism and acronym proper were not far off; the stock-ticker and other space-compressed media did not cause, but helped accelerate, the trend towards shorter names. The century-long process that gave birth to IBM, GE and AT&T has culminated with many companies preferring not to be known by their original names. IBM may still do international business but it no longer makes most of its money selling machines. GE does so much more than electronics that it rarely refers to itself as General Electric. AT&T would prefer you forget the “telegraph” in its name, though American iPhone users might prefer a telegraph to the much-derided voice service bundled with their handset by AT&T. The desire to shed an old association goes doubly for the second word in Kentucky Fried Chicken, now served up by a company called KFC. God bless Radio Shack for resisting the trend. But how long before they become RS.com?
There’s a whiff of the American about many acronyms. This may be the reason that a Chinese ministry, which went unnamed in press reports, quietly told media outlets to stop using roman-letter acronyms; F1 (Formula One motor racing) and the NBA (America’s National Basketball Association) were no longer to be so called in the columns of Chinese newspapers. But even the mighty Chinese government can only do so much; CCTV, the state-controlled Chinese Central Television, still has a large Roman “CCTV” in its logo, perhaps because its web address consists of those letters, not the Chinese characters, which cannot be used in web addresses.
There is nothing inherently American, or even Anglo-phone, about acronyms. Chinese itself has them, despite its remarkable character-based writing system. Many words consist of more than one character, and Chinese acronyms will use one character from each word (often, but not always, the first one). But of course acronyms are more suited to alphabets. The fish became a Christian symbol largely because the Greek word for it, ichthos, is an acronym for iesous christos theou ouios soter, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”. The Jews enjoyed making acronyms too, and even the name of the Bible is the tanakh, an acronym for torah nevi’im ketuvim, “Torah, prophets, writings”, the three main sections of the Hebrew Bible.
The proliferation of acronyms through texting seems particularly Anglophone. The standard term for a text in America is itself a set of capitals (SMS, short message service). Now other languages are following suit. In German, the initialism SMS has become an acronym proper, pronounced “zims”. It has also been made into a verb, smsen, so that it’s perfectly natural to say Ich habe ihr gesmst, “I texted her.”
The French too are playing with text-speak. Though many will happily import LOL from English tout court, they may also write MDR, mort de rire, “dead from laughing”. And just as English texters can play with the rebus principle to write things like CUL8R (“see you later”), so the French have @+ (à plus, short for “see you later”) and OQP, occupé, “busy”.
This trend points to good news as we drown in ever more acronyms. They are a mere microcosm of language, sharing most of the properties of language generally. So just as the bureaucrats coin jargon, waffle and acronyms, the grunts and drones will continue to fight back against the plodding predictability of acronymic churn. And kids will continue to speed up the process by replacing anything that catches on too broadly—to the next generation, “LOL” could be about as groovy as “groovy” is today.
Slang initialisms and nonce-acronyms survive in the crowded marketplace of language because they fill a useful function. A SNAFU (situation normal: all fucked up) filled a void; it’s not just any screw-up, it’s the screw-up caused by some title-inflated CTO or SVP trying to impose TQM (total quality management) on his remaining subordinates. Soldiers, who have to face the reality of life and death on the battlefield along with the fact that they work for a giant bureaucracy, are a prolific source of subversive acronyms. The American military mindset that gave us CENTCOM (Central Command), NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) and NETWARCOM (Naval Network Warfare Command) has also come up with SNAFU and FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition). In the famous profile in Rolling Stone that led to Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as America’s commander in Afghanistan, some troops were quoted as mocking the non-Americans serving with them in the International Stabilisation Force for Afghanistan: ISAF, they said, really stood for “I suck at fighting”. Soldiers will subvert acronyms as long as superiors think they can drive off the fog of war with the seductive quasi-certainty of the caps-lock key.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with acronyms. They may be a quintessentially modern annoyance, fooling us into thinking we have a greater grip on life’s complexities than we really do. But that goes hand in hand with the wonders of the modern world: I’ll take COPD and modern drugs over tuberculosis in 1910 any day. Acronyms are tools, no better or worse than the people who enliven or burden our lives with them.
(Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist and is writing a book about the politics of language around the world.)
Illustrations: Richard Rockwood