LOL! FFS! BRB! On the rise and rise of acronyms
This post came out of a discussion with my fellow anthropologists Colette Berbesque, Lia Betti and Nadine Beckmann and is dedicated to them.
I have recently started a new position and have spent much of my first few weeks in a slightly bewildered state because of all the new acronyms I’m constantly being exposed to. The scenario will be familiar to anyone who has changed jobs recently. It’s your first day, and people keep using an acronym in a meeting but you have absolutely no clue what it means. Do you: A) confess that you have zero idea what’s being discussed and ask what the acronym stands for, or B) keep a low profile in the meeting in the hopes that you can surreptitiously correct your ignorance afterwards?
If you expose your lack of knowledge and the acronym happens to be something central to your job, you’ll look like a complete numpty. If, on the other hand, you stay mum, nodding along with everyone else, and then someone asks you a question that relies on your understanding of said acronym, you’re going to look like an even bigger numpty. Basically, there is the strong potential for a no-win scenario, as the following sketch by the New Zealand comedy troupe Viva La Dirt League illustrates.1
Although I have a deep and abiding hatred of acronyms – a prejudice I have inflicted on every manuscript I have ever reviewed – academics are particularly prone to creating them. In a recent paper on the growth of acronyms in scientific literature, Adrian Barnett and Zoe Doubleday report that acronym usage in the titles of scientific literature increased from 0.7 per 100 words in 1950 to 2.4 per 100 words in 2019 – a more than three-fold increase.
What’s interesting is that people seem to be constantly creating new acronyms, rather than using existing ones. According to Barnett and Doubleday, ‘Strikingly, out of the 1.1 million acronyms analysed, we found that the majority were rarely used, with 30% occurring only once, and 49% occurring between two and ten times. Only 0.2% of acronyms (just over 2,000) occurred more than 10,000 times. One year after their first use, only 11% of acronyms had been re-used in a different paper in the same journal’. Thus, while some scientific acronyms have stood the test of time – especially old reliables like DNA and HIV2 – the majority will be speedily relegated to the dustbin of history.
Yet we continue to churn out acronyms with gleeful abandon. In fact, things have got so dire that many organisations now include glossaries to help you interpret their documents – like the World Bank, whose glossary is currently at 375 acronyms and abbreviations and counting.3 The glossary itself is a mishmash of acronyms for terms that are universally understood (like ‘km’ for ‘kilometre’), along with completely pointless abbreviations like ‘CUR’ for ‘currency’,4 and terminology specific to the World Bank, like ‘DEC’ (the World Bank’s Development Economics department, for the record, not ‘deceased’ or ‘December’).
Most of us probably assume that acronyms are a relatively recent phenomenon. However, according to the linguists Félix Rodríguez González and Garland Cannon, they can be found in Ancient Greek and Latin – as RIP, or Requiescat in pace (‘Rest in peace’), attests. Still, González and Cannon argue that usage of acronyms and abbreviations dramatically increased in the first half of the twentieth century, encouraged by three events: World War I,5 the Russian Revolution and Roosevelt’s New Deal, which gave us acronyms like ‘AWOL’ (‘away without leave’), ‘FHA’ (‘Federal Housing Administration’) and ‘Comintern’ (‘international Communist party’).
Acronyms are a fascinating phenomenon because they are theoretically designed to make our lives easier, but they often seem to have the opposite effect. Barnett and Doubleday argue that the growth in acronyms is a symptom of what has been labelled the ‘knowledge-ignorance paradox’: where the growth in specialised knowledge in some areas leads to a corresponding growth of ignorance in others. In effect, acronyms seem to promote ignorance rather than efficiency. So why are we so wedded to them?
While part of the role of acronyms is to allow members of a given profession to quickly communicate certain kinds of information, their function is also unquestionably social. To quote the journalist Kenneth Hudson, this kind of jargon is characterised by the fact that, ‘It is not essential, cannot be justified on practical grounds and fulfils no purpose, except possibly to act as a kind of masonic glue between different members of the same profession’.
But this is precisely the point of jargon: its role in identifying insiders and outsiders. Being able to use it fluently confirms your insider status and allows you speak in a language that produces looks of blank incomprehension amongst outsiders (and newbies). In this respect, it functions much like slang, which, as the linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge point out, ‘is a marker of in-group solidarity’.
In fact, acronyms increasingly operate as a form of slang, used not just in professional settings but social ones as well. You can thank the digital era for the growing use of acronym-based slang in social circles: as communication has become increasingly text-based, acronyms have arisen accordingly. Many are in widespread social use – like ‘LOL’, ‘BRB’, ‘WTF’ and ‘FFS’ – and their meanings are widely known, although they continue to cause problems for Luddites like myself who largely eschew the use of mobile phones.6
However, as acronyms have started to proliferate in social as well as professional spaces, they are increasingly a marker of membership in distinct social communities. For example, according to the lexicographer Jonathon Green, if you immediately think of ‘diarrhoea and vomiting’ when you see ‘D&V’, ‘shagging with intent’ when you see ‘SWI’7 and ‘stay at home mum’ when you see ‘SAHM’, the chances are that you’re a member of the parenting website Mumsnet. Likewise, if ‘MOS’ means ‘mum over shoulder’ or ‘P911’ means ‘parent alert’, then you’re very likely a teenager.
The result is that we live in a world of endlessly expanding acronyms, most of which have multiple social and professional meanings, thereby dramatically exacerbating the potential for confusion. This is something frequently played on for comedic effect – such as the confusion surrounding the meaning of ‘BLM’ in the first season of the TV show The White Lotus and the definition of ‘GLA’ in Marvel’s West Coast Avengers comics.
That said, you don’t have to look far for unintentionally amusing acronyms, like the ‘PMS’ conference, which does not, as you might have imagined, focus on the menstrual issues afflicting women,8 but refers to the ‘Precious Metals Summit’: a North American mining conference comprised largely of middle-aged men. Nor is it the only conference to bear the PMS acronym: that honour also goes to ‘Precision Medicine Scotland’ and the international workshop on ‘Project Management and Scheduling’.
In fact, some acronyms are so terrible that one can only assume that they were created as a joke, like ‘INANE’: the ‘International Academy of Nursing Editors’ and, my personal favourite,9 ‘MANCOC’: the ‘Maneuver Advanced Non-Commissioned Officers Course’ run by the Department of Defense. To this day, I remain convinced that administrators working at James Cook University in the late 1990s were taking the piss because all the acronyms for postgraduate administrative activities bore the names of dissident political organisations – for example, we were each assigned a ‘PLO’ (‘postgraduate liaison officer’) and an ‘IRA’ (‘internal research account’).
This points to the fact that acronyms function in much the same manner as other types of language: they bring us together, they set us apart, they’re constantly evolving and they’re highly creative. In effect, we play with them in the same way that we play with other types of language – at least, based on all the t-shirts bearing the slogan ‘I suffer from PMS: Putting up with Men’s Shit’. So if you can’t beat them (and, rest assured, you can’t), join them, because even if you hate acronyms, well, there’s an acronym for that.
That is my exact expression in basically every meeting I sit in at the moment.
These are also a good example of acronyms that are victims of their own success. I wonder how many people can identify what the acronyms actually stand for. In all honesty, I had to look up DNA myself (‘Deoxyribonucleic acid’). While I’m pretty sure anyone over the age of 45 can identify ‘Human immunodeficiency virus’, because we are old enough to remember when the term was coined in 1986, I very much doubt most people under the age of 30 can. Perhaps it’s the fate of all the most successful acronyms for people to forget what the letters stand for. For example, most people don’t realise that ‘radar’ started out as an acronym for – er – something (I mean, I could look it up, but at this point who actually cares?)
For the record, abbreviations, acronyms and alphabetisms (also known as ‘initialisms’) are all different things. Abbreviations are truncated words (e.g., ‘cur’,* ‘km’), acronyms are made up of parts of the phrases they stand for but are pronounced like words (e.g., ‘AIDS’, ‘radar’) and alphabetisms are made up of parts of the phrases they stand for but are pronounced as individual letters (e.g., FBI, CIA). While most of us tend to describe all the above as acronyms, grammatists take their differences Very Seriously Indeed. Debates abound over whether terms like ‘JPEG’ are initialisms, acronyms or both. I thought I was somewhat pedantic about grammar until I started checking out grammar websites and Reddit threads, but it turns out that I’m just a dilettante, not having firm opinions on whether ‘AIDS’ or ‘Aids’ is more grammatically correct – ‘Who cares?’ apparently not being a valid response.
*‘Currency’, not the insult used in bodice rippers (as in ‘Get your hands off me, you filthy cur!’).
I’m personally of the view that being too lazy to type the word ‘currency’ out in full should be sackable offence.
Although we have World War II to thank for all the cool acronyms like SNAFU (‘Situation normal: All fucked up’) and FUBAR (‘Fucked up beyond all recognition’).
For example, I initially thought ‘LOL’ meant ‘lots of love’ – although that’s primarily because if someone writes ‘LOL’, you can basically guarantee that what’s just been said is not actually funny. The linguist John McWhorter has argued that this is because the meaning of LOL has changed; we now use it to signal empathy and create a sense of equality rather than because we actually find something funny. For some reason, ‘WFH’, which became ubiquitous in the Covid era, continues to cause me problems because I tend to misread it as ‘WTF’, meaning that I’m constantly doing a double-take at headlines like ‘46 things that’ll make your WFH setup even better’.
For the record, ‘SWI’ is not a codename for Russell Brand, but is the term used for couples trying to conceive.
Despite, as my sister likes to point out, being held in Beaver Creek.
Because I am deeply immature.