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Acronyms for Your Enjoyment

Perhaps it is our acquired behavioural bias towards haste that has caused it, but there is certainly something in the modern mind which is attracted to abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms.

This came to my attention first some decades ago, when I was training to be a studio manager for the BBC in London. The organisation was famed for its civil-service, bureaucratic ways which extended to giving most staff a set of initials as an abbreviation of their formal titles. I was an SM, obviously, but was later turned into a POA, a “Programmes Operations Assistant”, at which point I left for a job where I didn’t create a rain shower every time I gave my full job title (they changed it back later). The Head of Staff Training, under whose aegis I was taught the rudiments of my craft, was of course HST. This went all the way up to the top, for the Director-General was always the DG. However, I have to report that the existence of the Engineering Information and Electronics Instruction Officer was just an urban legend. One of the odder customs at the time was a marked tendency for the more senior staff to refer to each other by their initials; at a mini-seminar one day, HST turned to the man next to him and began “Well, H Cat ...”. I knew him better as Ivor, but he was indeed the Head of Catering.

All these examples except the last should more properly be called initialisms, a sequence of the first letters of a series of words, each pronounced separately. Lexicographers make a careful distinction between these and the two other types of shortenings. An acronym is a word group created in a similar way to an initialism but which is pronounced as a word. So HIV is an initialism, but AIDS is an acronym. An abbreviation is any contraction of a word or phrase, but it’s applied particularly to contractions such as eg (here I follow common British practice in leaving out the full stops and spaces; you may prefer e.g.). Signs for units of measurement, such as kg, are technically not abbreviations but symbols, though they commonly use alphabetic characters for ease of reproduction, and they never include stops. But some people just call them all abbreviations, though there’s a tendency to use acronym instead, as being a more important-sounding word.

The Civil Service produces many of these small miracles of compression. For example, a minor member of Her Majesty’s Government is a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, frequently abbreviated to PUSS. Some years ago the old Department of Health and Social Security was split in two; the new Department of Health presented no difficulty, and was immediately and officially abbreviated to DoH; the other half should have become DoSS, but the mandarin classes saw the headlines coming and decided instead on DSS (doss is British slang for a bed in a common lodging house, where down-and-outs would once have found a cheap place to sleep). When a kind of government lottery started up, the device that generated the winning numbers was named ERNIE, “Electronic Random Number Indicating Equipment” (to keep with personal names a moment, that nice Mr Major when Chancellor of the Exchequer brought in the TESSA, the “Tax Exempt Special Savings Account”).

Civil servants may advise BOLTOP, “Better On Lips Than On Paper”, that is, don’t put anything in writing. CBE officially stands for “Commander of the Order of the British Empire”, often a reward to minor civil servants for long service with egg-free faces, but is sometimes re-interpreted as “Can’t Be Everywhere” as a reproof to over-zealous superiors. There is a set of long-service awards given only to very senior staff; in increasing order of seniority, they are CMG, “Companion of the order of St Michael and St George” (irreverently reinterpreted as “Call Me God”), KCMG, “Knight Commander of the order of St Michael and St George”, (“Kindly Call me God”) and GCMG, “Knight Grand Cross of the order of St Michael and St George” (“God Calls me God”). After a week of this, the more junior grades might be excused for observing TGIF, “Thank God It’s Friday”, or POETS, “Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday”.

Speaking of “off”, the British Government set up several regulatory bodies when utilities were privatised, including the Office of the Telecommunications Regulator, whose name one can’t really blame anyone for abbreviating to OfTel. This worked well with OfWat for the water supply industry and OfGas for the gas companies, was stretched a little for Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, but came adrift when they privatised the electricity supply industry. To the chagrin of fun-loving acronym-watchers everywhere, they decided against Offel in favour of Offer (Office of the Electricity Regulator). Irreverent souls have suggested that a suitable term for the regulator of the sewage industry would be OfPiss and for the turf-laying business OfSod. Thank heavens there’s no proposal to regulate brothels.

Which leads, with hardly a break of step, to NORWICH, a notation that was once common on the backs of envelopes containing letters home from Second World War servicemen: “kNickers Off Ready When I Come Home”. A more polite version was SWALK, “Sealed With A Loving Kiss”. Anyone seeking to enquire more closely might be told to MYOB, “Mind Your Own Business”. The US and British forces in the same war respectively invented FUBAR, “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition”, and SNAFU, “Situation Normal, All Fucked Up”, with several equally rude variants.

The computing and online communities have taken these last two acronyms to their bosoms, and have generated dozens of others, most of which — such as BTW, “By The Way”, RTFM, “Read the Fucking Manual”, and YMMV, “Your Mileage May Vary” — are initialisms, though a very few are pronounceable: AFAIK, “As Far As I Know”, IMHO, “In My Humble Opinion”, and even YABA, “Yet Another Bloody Acronym”. But FAQ, “Frequently Asked Questions”, is usually acronymised by Americans as “fack” but most British people spell it out, perhaps because it sounds ruder when said in a British accent. The influence of science fiction — always strong in computing — is apparent in TANSTAAFL, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” (coined by Robert Heinlein in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) and TANJ, “There Ain’t No Justice” (invented by Larry Niven in Ringworld).

Those attending a party in Australia or North America may be advised to BYOB, “Bring Your Own Beer” (or possibly “Bring Your Own Bottle”), or even BYOG, Bring Your Own Grog”, though both terms have many other expansions there and elsewhere, including “Bring Your Own Books”, or “Bring Your Own Girl”, and there’s even an example from Jamaica of “Bring Your Own Granny”, into which I didn’t like to enquire further.

There is a whole series of joking terms for people of various kinds, of which the eighties original that has most firmly fixed itself in the language is Yuppie, the “Young Upwardly-mobile Professional”. Others modelled on it include YAPPIE, “Young Affluent Parent”, OINK, “One Income, No Kids”, DINKIE, “Dual Income, No Kids”, RUBBIE, “Rich Urban Biker”, HOPEFUL, “Hard-up Older Person Expecting Full Useful Life”, DUMP, “Destitute Unemployed Mature Professional”, SITCOM, “Single Income, Two Kids, Outrageous Mortgage”, SINBAD, “Single Income, No Boyfriend, Absolutely Desperate”, SINK, “Single, Independent, No Kids” and SCUM, “Self-Centred Urban Male” (these last two are sometimes put together). I’ve even heard of the rather strained NIPPLE, “New Irish Professional People living in London Executive Suites”. The US Census invented the famous near-acronym POSSLQ (pronounced “possle-q”), “Person of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters”, which William Safire said was offensive to gays and which should instead be PASSLQ, “Person of the Appropriate Sex Sharing Living Quarters”.

The environmental protester’s equivalent of the YUPPIE is the PANSE, “Politically Active and Not Seeking Employment”. There are many terms coined by those opposing development, including NIMBY, “Not In My Back Yard”, originally a US invention but which is now common everywhere in the English-speaking world. In the US, environmentalists have coined several other useful acronyms: NIMTOO, “Not In My Term Of Office”, NIMEY, “Not In My Election Year”, NOTE, “Not Over There Either”, LULU, “Locally Unpopular Land Uses”, and the even more extreme BANANA, “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody”, NOPE, “Not On Planet Earth”, and CAVE, “Citizens Against Virtually Everything”.

In the search for acronymic memorability, titles are often creatively pummelled into a better shape. Technologists are probably more guilty of this than anyone. There’s SERENDIP, the “Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations”, a successor to the old SETI project. And there’s PERMANENT, “Projects to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term” which is promoting the idea of colonies in space. Other examples are ADROIT, short for the “Adverse Drug Reactions On-Line Information Tracking” group of the British Medicines Control Agency, ASH, “Action on Smoking and Health”, an anti-smoking campaigning body, NICAM, “Near-Instantaneous Companded Audio Multiplex”, and BOSS, “Bioastronautic Orbiting Space Station”. Not to mention DIAMOND, “Dipole And Multipole Output from a National source at Daresbury”, which is a proposed specialist synchrotron accelerator in Cheshire, and ARISE, “Associates for Research into the Science of Enjoyment”, which sounds a jolly body to have around.

Sometimes the chosen shortening seems obtuse. British Telecom has helped to develop a navigation system for visually impaired people called MoBIC, which is supposedly “Mobility of Blind and elderly people Interacting with Computers”. Shouldn’t it therefore be MoBEPIC? Could it be that “elderly people” was wedged in by order of the marketing department after they’d trademarked the name, or was it thought to be too ugly an acronym, or the reference to the elderly in the acronym itself perhaps pejorative? They could have tried “Mobility of the Blind Interacting with eLectronic Equipment” and so achieved MoBILE. MIRACL is short for “Mid-InfraRed Advanced Chemical Laser”, part of the Star Wars program, which makes me wonder why they didn’t tack “Equipment” on the end and do the job properly. An older example is a computer system designed to help the British police track evidence in big investigations, which was almost inevitably named HOLMES and then reverse-acronymised to the “Home Office Large Major Enquiry System”; if only it had been limited to investigating murders, they could have had a neater expansion (a more recent Swedish equivalent is MYCROFT, one for the real Baker Street aficionados, though so far as I know it’s not an acronym).

None of these can match my favourite, for a short-lived pressure group sometime in the seventies which was objecting to flights from London Airport on the day of rest. Their protest consisted of driving in convoy very slowly round and round the approach roundabouts to the Airport, thus creating massive traffic congestion and denying access to legitimate users. They called their protest group, as aptly as could be imagined, CHAOS, which stood for “Close Heathrow Airport On Sundays”. Unhappily for the continued existence of the acronym, though perhaps not for the group, the fuzz stepped in and arrested all the car drivers for obstruction but, in the fair-minded way of the British police, only after each had circled the roundabout three times, on the grounds that once was legitimate, twice might be a mistake, but three times had to be deliberate.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 20 Dec. 1997
Last updated 7 Nov. 1998

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Last modified: 7 November 1998.