Returning to the United States seven years ago, I was puzzled how the Bureau of Land Management had seemingly become involved with race politics. Then I deciphered that the hashtag #BLM had taken on a new meaning during my quarter century abroad: Black Lives Matter.
I was likewise confused when newscasters recently began speaking about the IRA — the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The abbreviation had spent decades in the headlines representing the Irish Republican Army.
Then, there is the personal IRA, an acronym — sometimes pronounced eye-ruh — for a tax-advantaged Individual Retirement Account.
Such recycling or duplications of initials is nothing new. The NRA — National Rifle Association — is frequently in the news amid the gun control debate. The abbreviation was just as pervasive in 1930s America during the Great Depression. The NRA blue eagle logo was displayed by companies adhering to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor codes of the National Recovery Administration.
At VOA, we stake our claim to the initials from the time of our first broadcast (in German) in 1942. We were latecomers, having been preceded by the Volunteers of America, a philanthropic organization originating in New York City in 1896.
Abbreviations or initialisms are convenient shorthand, usually formed from the initial letters of two or more words. Acronyms technically are shortcuts pronounceable as words. Radar, for example, comes from the 1940s technology of radio direction and ranging. That rang nicely, leading to the related acronym for sound navigation and ranging: sonar. Also below the waterline: scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).
Joe Essid, Ph.D. (that suffix from the Latin, meaning philosophiae doctor), director of the Writing Center at the University of Richmond, notes “the military is full of bad acronyms.”
The acronym for the commander in chief of the U.S. Navy fleet (CINCUS – “sink us”) was retired after the Japanese did just that at Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Air Force proposed a space plane in the 1960s, the X-20 Dyna-Soar. That did not fly.
“I think one reason it got canceled was because it was called the dinosaur,” says Essid, whose own surname has become an acronym for extended service set identifier.
In World War II, American soldiers hoping to avoid being MIA (missing in action) or KIA (killed in action) sometimes complained their equipment or plans were fubar — fouled up beyond all recognition. Except the first word was not fouled, but an expletive. “FUBAR” in 2023 is the title of a Netflix action-comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Fubar’s twin from the same era is snafu, which in polite company means situation normal all fouled up. During the war, the U.S. Army officially took it in good humor and produced a series of instructional cartoon shorts titled “Private Snafu.”
Educator and podcaster Mignon Fogarty (AKA Grammar Girl on social media) has mixed feelings about all the abbreviations.
“Acronyms are a great example of jargon — language that is wonderful shorthand for insiders, but that excludes everyone else. Acronyms aren’t bad in all situations, but when you’re an outsider, they’re quite off-putting,” she says.
Shortened names are not consistent across languages. In English, OAS is used for the Organization of American States. But in most of those three dozen member nations, it is known as the OEA, (La Organización de los Estados Americanos).
The international organization providing humanitarian medical assistance in war and disaster zones was initially known as MSF: Médecins Sans Frontières. It now refers to itself in English as Doctors Without Borders, but DWB does not seem to have caught on.
Similarly for the dual identities of Reporters Without Borders, which uses its French acronym RSF (Reporters sans frontières) even in English.
Speaking of the French, they do try to impose some method to language madness, resisting their phrases and acronyms from inundation by anglicisms. In English, there is no equivalent of the Académie Française, and hence no registry of acronyms.
“There’s no American academy of linguistic purity. That’s the strength of the English language,” according to Essid. “It’s a malleable and imperfect tool.”
Any group, individual or agency can create their own acronyms in English, hoping they gain flight ASAP by RTITW (releasing them in the wild), which I just made up.
Let us see if someone will add it to the Acronym Finder.
The White House
As a White House correspondent, my lexicon overflowed with acronyms: POTUS (President of the United States), FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) and VPOTUS (Vice President of the United States), whose ceremonial office is not inside the White House but next door in the EEOB (Eisenhower Executive Office Building).
When I got too close to POTUS or VPOTUS with my boom microphone, I got a stern look from a plainclothes agent of the PPD (Presidential Protective Division) of the USSS (United States Secret Service).
Confusingly, PPD at the White House can also refer to a presidential policy directive.
Really famous 20th century presidents became historical initials starting with FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), who was eventually followed by JFK (John F. Kennedy) and LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson). Johnson’s successor, Richard Milhous Nixon, the only U.S. president to resign, is not immortalized as RMN.
With the election of the first female vice president, Kamala Harris, her husband, Douglas Emhoff, became the first SGOTUS (Second Gentleman of the United States).
And when a man eventually assumes the traditional FLOTUS role, he’ll be FGOTUS, although the media used that term during the Obama administration to denote White House resident Marian Robinson, mother of FLOTUS Michelle Obama, as the unofficial ‘first grandmother of the United States.’
‘Make the meaning clear’
Grammarian Fogarty offers pro tips for those employing linguistic shorthand.
“When writing for a more general audience, context will also often make the meaning clear. MVP in a baseball story will obviously mean ‘most valuable player.’ But in a general business story, you may need to define MVP (minimum viable product) the first time you use it.”
She prefers to err on the side of caution and spell it out if there is any doubt the audience won’t know the meaning.
OK, (said to originate from oll korrect, an alteration of all correct).
Forgarty’s suggestion is likely good advice for a resume or cv (curriculum vitae).
Fred DeFilippo, for example, went from the CIA to the CIA. The former executive chef at the Central Intelligence Agency is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
Cellphone text messaging unleashed a torrent of abbreviations to reduce character count: AFAIK (as far as I know); BRB (be right back); IDK (I don’t know); MIRL (meet in real life); NSFW (not safe for work); ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing), and TMI (too much information).
“I try not to use them,” says Essid. “I don’t text a lot, I hate smartphones. I tend to communicate with email and in person. And so, I don’t tend to use these abbreviations and acronyms.”
Except in his hobby of beekeeping where they seem to be buzzing all around.
“A lot of them have to do with sex,” such as JH for juvenile hormones, Essid explains.
Human teenagers with surging hormones are prolific users of social messaging codes.
Before the advent of fruit and vegetable emojis, initialisms were created to KPC (keep parents clueless), such as FWB (friends with benefits); OC (open crib, meaning no parent will be home) and TDTM (talk dirty to me). Many more examples are NSFW (not safe for work).
Early Christians under threat of persecution had the Latin initialism INRI (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum — Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews). Perhaps it was not meant to obscure meaning, rather, to save time carving wooden crosses.
Are acronyms 2,000 years on so pervasive that editors should let them stand on their own without elaboration?
IDK, TBD. TTYL. LOL.