Acronyms: The Language of Technology

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2551, 2007-12-21, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 17-18) and their website.

Mastery of any field requires equal mastery of its language, and the ever-expanding world of technology is no exception. In fact, to anyone learning a nontrivial technical subject, it can appear that half the battle involves sorting out the subject's specialized terminology, much of which can be composed of acronyms.

Computers and the Internet are particularly blessed — or cursed, depending upon one's perspective — with innumerable acronyms. "PC" may be the most commonly used acronym of all time. It is so commonplace that nonjesting use of the phrase "personal computer" nowadays would immediately brand oneself either a woefully ignorant hick new to the world of indoor plumbing, or a member of Congress struggling to comprehend "the tubes" of the Internet's virtual plumbing.

In the realm of software, the development and use of desktop and Web-based applications exposes one to an unending stream of acronyms, A through Z, literally: ASCII, BSD, CSS, DNS, EBCDIC, FTP, GNU, HTTP, IP, JDBC, KB, LDAP, MB, NT, ODBC, PHP, QBE, RSS, SQL, TCP, URL, VPN, WYSIWYG, XML, Y2K, and ZBR. What's telling is not that every letter of the alphabet has at least one acronym that it begins, but that some of the letters have dozens of commonly known and used alternatives.

How did this creeping acronymization get started? What purpose does it serve? What are its pitfalls? And should writers be allowed to use terms such as "acronymization"? These questions — at least most of them — we will answer in this article, PDQ.

NTK (Nice To Know)

The origins of acronyms may be lost in the mists of time. Or, more likely, in the denser mists of military communication. This would not astonish anyone who has served in the American armed forces or in the (often similar) trenches of American aerospace engineering.

During World War II, as American men and women in retooled factories cranked out a steady stream of wartime supplies, their leaders — corporate and governmental — were cranking out a steady stream of wartime acronyms. Similar to our modern peacetime equivalents, the WWII acronyms ranged from A to Z: AAA (antiaircraft artillery) to ZI (zone of the interior). Some of the most well-known ones include AWOL (absent without leave), POW (prisoner of war), and WAC (Women's Army Corps).

By definition, an acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a name. To purists, if the initial letters do not form something pronounceable, then it is not a true acronym, but instead an abbreviation. But most people use the term "acronym" to encompass both groups, and more. The term was derived from the Greek words "nym", which means "a kind of word", and "acro", which means "peak, top, or initial".

Some acronyms may start out all uppercase, but eventually settle into all lowercase, as they become common elements in everyday vocabulary. For instance, the word "snafu" began life as "SNAFU" ("situation normal, all fouled up" — at least, that's the bowdlerized version). For some acronyms, more than just the first letters of the words are used, e.g., "radar" is the shortened version of "radio detecting and ranging".

ILA (I Love Acronyms)

As computers and other forms of technology began to conquer the US military the same way they did other fields, new technical acronyms began to appear like MIRVs out of an ICBM. The military even developed a variation on the standard acronym: Instead of using only the first letter of each word, they chose oftentimes the first syllable, leading to acronyms that would be longer than otherwise, but easier for new recruits to decipher. For instance, "PACOM" is Pacific Command.

Not to be outdone by their DOD counterparts, companies like IBM honed acronyms to a fine art, while upstart firms such as MS pushed software and operating systems with names such as DOS (Disk Operating System). Entertainment and media industry heavyweights joined the fray with the acronyms CD, DVD, ROM, and even combinations thereof, e.g., CD-ROM. Computer programmers, being more comfortable with cryptic names than any other breed of techie, have created their own slew of acronyms, including one that skips the first letter of the first word altogether: "Extensible Markup Language" (XML).

It was inevitable that eventually people would begin forming acronyms of acronyms. The US military was the first to do so, naturally, and now there are so many of them in use that linguists do not even raise an eyebrow anymore. Not to be outdone, technologists managed to create an acronym of an acronym of an acronym: PL-3.

For those mystified by the proliferation of TLAs (three letter acronyms), help is at hand, using the WWW (World Wide Web) of course. Acronym Finder claims to have over 4 million definitions, which nowadays is believable. For more computer-oriented acronyms, check out TUCAA, which is short for The Ultimate Computer Acronyms Archive. Military-oriented acronyms can be found at MilitaryWords.com.

IHA (I Hate Acronyms)

Not everyone is a fan of the relentless abbreviation of the English language. For any listener or reader unfamiliar with an acronym — or worst, a string of them — the miniscule time and space saved by using the acronym instead of the full phrase, is completely outweighed by the time wasted speaking up and asking for the meaning of the acronym, or having to look it up on the Internet, or simply giving up.

There is also the criticism that the ever-proliferating acronyms that litter our language are making the verbal landscape ugly. In a televised interview, actor Paul Hogan ("Crocodile Dundee") lamented how Americans are slowly ruining their language, such as replacing the lovely name "Los Angeles" with the harsh abbreviation "LA".

Lifetime members of the fictional AAAAA (American Association Against Acronym Abuse) may use instant messaging (IM) to declare that "SSEWBA" (someday soon, everything will be acronyms), but there's no sign that either cyberspace or meatspace is ever going to become an AFZ (Acronym Free Zone).

Speaking of meat, the restaurant California Pizza Kitchen has sub-named itself "CPK", which is about as appetizing as "KFC". Will transitioning their names to acronyms make them any more comprehensible? Not to one American man briefly interviewed by Julian Morrow for the humorous Australian show "Chaser Non-Stop News Network" (CNNNN): "Which state does KFC come from?" "What, the chicken? I don't know…" "Do you know what KFC stands for?" "Kentucky Fried Chicken, right?"

Perhaps acronyms are not the root cause of the widespread befuddlement in our great land, in my humble opinion (IMHO).

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.