I was thinking the other day about an induction course I was sent on when joining the nuclear industry as a copy editor working on the Sizewell B Pre-Construction Safety Report. The day-long course was entitled ‘Induction SHORT course – a Short History of Reactor Theory’. “By the end of the day”, the notification purred, “you will have gained a basic insight into how nuclear reactors work and will be able to build your own reactor from a kettle.” Wow, I thought, now there’s something I’ve always longed to do! And it’s only going to take a day! But my other thought was that I couldn’t decide if the acronym used for this SHORT course was rather clever or just downright corny.
The definition of ‘acronym’ (which dates back to the 1940s) is that it is formed from the initial letters of other words but is pronounceable as a word in itself (e.g. ASCII) – as opposed to an initialism where the letters are pronounced separately (e.g. BBC). We’ll all be familiar with loads of acronyms. Many of them have been assimilated into everyday language – think radar, taser, ‘smart’ car, scuba. And so well assimilated that we may no longer know what the words actually stand for. With that in mind, here’s a bit of wacky information. Taser stands for ‘Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle’. The guy who invented the taser, a certain John H. Cover (who, incidentally, is a former chief scientist of Aerospace’s Apollo Moon Landing Programme), named the device after his boyhood literary hero Tom Swift. One of the books is called ‘Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle’. Seriously, you couldn’t make it up.
Of course, not only are acronyms cute, they’re also useful. In our full-speed-ahead modern world, we need all the help we can get to cut to the chase and save time and brain power, so things are done asap. Any techy arena will inevitably be awash with them – the IT (not an acronym!) industry, the medical profession, the military. CRUD’s a good one from the IT sector (create, read, update and delete – well if it’s crud, you would, wouldn’t you). But do you ever wonder if an acronym is so damn clever and cute that it’s been crafted into oblivion? That the main aim of the exercise has been to find a great acronym, and then make the words fit it? And that in so doing, we’re being fed something that isn’t wholly accurate? Or at least might have been told to us in a better, truer way, had the dreaded acronym not been invented? I’m thinking here more along the lines of new-fangled acronyms in the workplace. Marketing and advertising has AIDA, BANT, CoCA, WOMM – there’s more than you can shake a stick at. Do you speak acronym in your workplace? Does knowing them and being able to speak in shorthand make you fit in and feel part of the club?
Acronym/initialism invention and usage is growing exponentially, thanks to the mobile world, where speed and space are of the essence. It’s a new language – think ‘fyi’, ‘omg’, ‘eop’, ‘btw’. And are you ever tempted, like me, to reinvent them? FYI becomes ‘F**k you, idiot’, ‘omg’ becomes ‘Off my gin!’, and so on. Then there’s the really cool up-to-the-minute ones – ‘YOLO’, ‘MILF’, ‘FUTAB’, ‘VUCA’ – which probably defy reinvention.
And let’s not forget the really incongruous ones. Take SMUTI, for instance. You’d think this would be something to do with soft porn or dirty jokes. But no, it stands for ‘strength monitoring using thermal imaging’. Alas, not quite so engaging.
But the best fun with acronyms is when they go horribly wrong. Let me introduce you to the Conservative Reform Alliance Party (CRAP), South Lake Union Trolley (SLUT) – the latter giving rise to T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Ride the SLUT’. Cringe. Or you could make some up: Anglo-Russian Space Entente (ARSE), DIET (Did I eat that?). And one especially for the odious Gove: DEPOT (don’t ever piss off teachers).
The takeout message is: acronyms are really great, honest! (AARGH!) But if you’re going to use them, then first, make sure you know what they mean: don’t send a commiseration ending with ‘lol’ – it usually means ‘laughing out loud’, not ‘lots of love’. And if you’re inventing one, then ‘coyff’ – check out your facts first!
Liz Sandbach, October 2016