An Aversion to Acronyms

I have a thing about acronyms. On the whole, I don’t like them. Perversely, however, I frequently find myself playing around with proverbs, phrases, exhortations and other word structures, turning them into acronyms on the off-chance that a fun word pops out. I am nearly always disappointed. Gafmo is an exception but its expansion is too impolite to spell out here.

One entertaining acronym that I have discovered through my mental games – along, no doubt with many other people – is joatmon. If you are not already familiar with it, you will quickly decode it, especially if I tell you that its opposite is the comparatively mundane dot. Note my odd lower case convention for acronyms, which I use because I treat them as words in their own right rather than as mere abbreviations. Both joatmon and dot, as words, seem to match their meaning well.

I have been reflecting on the underlying cause of my aversion to acronyms. Their purpose, I imagine, is economy of speech. Perhaps, in today’s fast moving world, this is a symptom of the abnormally hectic nature of corporate life. While attending meetings at work, my ears assaulted by a barrage of tiresome TLAs, I often need to interject with “Sorry, but what does XYZ mean?”. In the eyes of many, the ability to spout acromyns, especially in combination with buzzwords and other professional gobbledygook, conveys a sense of authority. If we can leverage the FBS then surely we know what we are talking about?

You don’t find many acronyms in literature. Shakespeare and Milton did not seem to need them and neither did mythical heroes such as Odysseus. Likewise they are not considered an attractive device for modern novelists beyond the occasional use of meaningful acronyms like NATO, which have gained universal acceptance through usage.

Acronyms may be convenient but they are also inherently diminutive. In some subtle way they seem to undermine the importance of the entities they represent. There are exceptions. The names of organisations or the bodies of work they produce are sometimes so awkward, unwieldy or obscure that the acronym is actually preferable to the full version. Imagine, for example, having to utter the overlong and confounding “Information Technology Infrastructure Library” every time you refer to the service management framework known as ITIL. Truly a waste of words.

A useful guideline for assessing acronyms is their length. The longer the better. So-called TLAs rarely stand out and their overuse promotes confusion. My brain rebels against them. Those composed of four letters are usually better, giving a higher degree of differentiation, greater economy and more scope for forming interesting and memorable words. The acronym QA, which I particularly dislike, trivialises quality by reducing it to a nasty little two letter abbreviation and persuading everyone that it means the same thing as testing – a quite distinct, but overlapping activity.

The Knot Garden does not seek to outlaw acronyms. But some discrimination is necessary. Where acronyms abound, we should question the value of the spoken – or written – material being presented. And, perhaps, the credentials of the presenter.

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