Beware of the dreaded acronym

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

A central premise of literary theory is that context is everything.

The word provenance is used to describe the origin or history of ownership of a historical artifact or valued  art work.

In other words, where we find something, or where it came from, has everything to do with its value or meaning.

That stray book or piece of furniture in your attic or basement may (or may not) be worth a fortune based on  where it has been or who owned it.

A desk or book owned by Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln for example, will be worth vastly more that the same book or desk with a less distinguished or even thoroughly unknown history.

In the same way, our language has acquired all kinds of strings of letters full of meaning – or completely devoid of meaning – based on whether the meaning is known or is at all relevant or useful.

I may have grown up in the Age of Aquarius, but I’m growing old in the Age of the Acronym.  - Roy Peter Clark

For better or worse, we are surrounded by acronyms and use them all the time, whether we know it or not. Here are a few examples;

ZIP Codes, originally stood for Zone Improvement Plan Code and was introduced across the US in 1963.  (1*)

IKEA stands for the initials of the store’s founder – Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd.

AFLAC is not a cute sound from a duck on TV, it actually stands for American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus.

And that well known Hawaiian delicacy SPAM, stands for Shoulder of Pork and Ham.

One of the most famous acronyms of all – SOS… doesn’t stand for anything. It was chosen as a sign of distress for its unmistakable Morse code representation—three dots, three dashes, three dots. (Though, please, never eat *something* on a shingle….)

You might think EAT has something to do with food. It is actually an airport code - but not for Eatonville. It is the airport code for the Wenatchee, WA airport. Photo: Morf Morford

You might think EAT has something to do with food. It is actually an airport code – but not for Eatonville. It is the airport code for the Wenatchee, WA airport. Photo: Morf Morford

Most of the time, when we use or hear acronyms, we are submerged in that particular subculture, so we have a little sense of the context.

By subculture, I mean any setting, professional, regional or recreational, that has a purpose or inclination to use its own shorthand to both communicate and keep information relatively confidential.

Military and governmental jargon is legendary – as is pop culture slang. Business and technology have their own vocabulary of inclusion and exclusion.

If you fly often, you are confronted by a blizzard of acronyms, some obvious and familiar (SEA for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport) others familiar but still puzzling (like PDX, Portland International Airport – where did that X come from? Does it have some crucial meaning?).

Some are locked in history with a total mismatch of letters used and the current name of the airport or the city (like PEK for Beijing Capital International Airport).  (2*)

You can expect some correlation between an airport code and the name or purpose of any given airport. But don’t expect too much.

You can see an index of world airport codes here – https://www.world-airport-codes.com/ and domestic USA codes here – http://www.airportcodes.org/.

But as with industrial or military acronyms, many times you need to know the context before the terms makes any sense.

And airport codes (or names) have near zero relevance to the size of the city – or its name.

Tacoma has no airport name or code (being dropped off the back end of SEA doesn’t bother us Tacomians at all – does it?).

Spokane (at about the same population as Tacoma) has its own code (GEG). Even Bellingham has its own code (BLI).

Moses Lake has its own airport code (MWH) as does Wenatchee (EAT).

Nationwide, airport codes don’t get any more predictable or coherent; Waco, TX is ACT, Watertown NY is ART, Wichita, KS is ICT, Palm Springs, CA is PSP and Maui, HI is OGG.

Across the globe, airport codes become even more surreal. VAN is for the airport in the city of Van, Turkey. Vancouver, Canada, a vastly larger city, gets YVR.

Zouerate, Mauritania has OUZ, Zhengzha, China has CGO and Shanghai, China has PVG.

Acronyms don't always mean what we expect them to. This popular cafe in Copenhagen has an easy to remember name. Photo: Morf Morford

Acronyms don’t always mean what we expect them to. This popular cafe in Copenhagen has an easy to remember name. Photo: Morf Morford

The business and military worlds of jargon and acronyms are not so different. Meaning may, or may not be, tied to use or some historical association – or some long lost in-joke or legend.

MOQ might mean “minimum order quantity” or “married officer’s quarters”.

POS could mean “point of sale”, “program of study”, “point of stress” or “piece of s%#t”.

BRB might mean “be right back”, “bathroom break” or “Benefits Review Board” (US Department of Labor). B2B might refer to “business to business”, “back to basics”, “Bridges to Babylon” (The Rolling Stones album) “beauty to beast” or even “bars to beaches”.

Our accustomed or presumed definitions might lead us astray – NFL, for example has at least 35 different meanings -besides “National Football League” you could be referring to “National Felons League”, “nature’s first law”, “Newspapers for Literacy” or, in a medical context, “non-fatty livers”.

BYOB could mean “bring your own bottle”, “build your own burrito”, “buy your own breakfast”, “bring your own bananas” or even “bring your own blankie”.

POC could mean “point of care”, “proof of citizenship”, “port of call”, “parent of child”, “proof of claim” (in the insurance industry), “piece of cake”, “prisoner of conscience” or “person of color”.

POC could also refer to the Amtrak station in Pocatello, Idaho. Or the Brackett Field Airport in La Verne, California.

Millennials might think they invented the shorthand way of writing we know as texting (like OMG, LOL, WTH, IDK, IMO, YOLO, 182 and hundreds of others) but these shortcuts have been around for generations if not longer. (3*)

In short, yes, context is everything. That phrase you use might mean far more (or even far less) than you intended.

And for the total word nerds who might be reading this, acronyms are abbreviations where the abbreviation is formed from letters of other words – usually – but not always – the first letter of each word.  The resulting abbreviation needs to be pronounceable as a word.

An initialism is where the letters are pronounced as separate letters (not as a word). Examples would be FBI, DVD, LED, MPG and the terms for most colleges and universities like UW, MSU or UCLA, most radio and television stations, and a few countries like the UK, PRC and the USA.

Sometimes the acronym (or initialism) overwhelms the original name.

Several years ago I was in Beijing, PRC with a group of students. In the downtown area we saw a KFC. I pointed to it and said, “You guys know what KFC stands for?”

One student looked at me, entirely baffled, and responded “It doesn’t stand for anything. That’s just the name”.

Other organizations and agencies resist being known by their initials. One example is the prestigious New England based Sag Harbor Institute of Technology. I can’t imagine why….

 

(1*)    You can see a full history of ZIP codes here – https://www.rd.com/culture/zip-code-meaning/.

(2*)    Beijing used to be pronounced (and written) “Peking” hence the historic acronym. By passenger traffic, since 2010, PEK is the busiest airport in Asia and second largest in the world. When I first visited Beijing in early 1999, the airport had two runways and one baggage carousel.

(3*)    You can see an encyclopedia of 21st Century text abbreviations here – https://www.webopedia.com/quick_ref/textmessageabbreviations.asp.