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November 08, 2006

Initial Confusion

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This subject has been bugging me for years and years. But fear not! ... I'll try to vent as gently as possible.

You see, we were in the Nordstrom in Santa Barbara trying to locate gaucho pants for Nancy and a sales clerk told us to check over at "bp." Uh, "bp" -- whazzat?

It turned out that "bp" was a sub-location of their Brass Plum department. And Brass Plum? It has been around for years and I have no clue what it's supposed to signify beyond simply being a department name. That's a side-issue; let's get to the meat of this post.

Which is ... When I encounter initials I usually have no idea what they stand for. If I'm remotely typical of most folks, then use of initials ought to be counter-productive, No?

This initial thing has been going on for quite a spell. For starters, consider SPQR. Or INRI.

In 19th century America we had GAR and GOP.

And in the 20th there were AAA, IRS and NRA (no, not that NRA -- the other one, dummy!).

Hmm. Two prominent NRAs. One NRA is slightly dated, having to do with FDR. Still, cause for confusion, absent clear context.

From the military we get AWOL, SNAFU and FIGMO. Although it might not be original to computer programmers, I associate FUBAR with them.

The Internet has FWIW, OTOH, LOL and other abbreviations that can bring my reading to a halt if I'm not in the know.

Some initials that really get my goat are MLB, ALCS and NLCS. I can see why sports page editors use them when the ink budget is tight, but they are still so new and unfamiliar enough to me that I can lose the thread of what I'm reading.

Businesses can be some of the worst offenders. Okay, IBM is known to nearly everyone. But what about BNSF (or SNCF if you're thinking of going to France)? Sometimes I get marketing phone calls where the guy on the other end of the line identifies himself as being affiliated with [string of initials here]. Clear to him, but not to me or most others who are too lame-brained to hang up immediately if there's a one-second pause after you say "Hello."

Some companies devote many years and many millions of dollars to promote a set of initials that will rival IBM. Sadly for most such efforts, the result is yet another example of insider jargon.

Given the tendency of the English language to conciseness, all my complaining here will be wasted effort. I'll just have to continue to tough it.

Oh. Did you notice that, aside from "bp" I didn't translate any of those initials I threw at you? Just my attempt to get with the program and play the game the way it's played these days.



posted by Donald at November 8, 2006


FWIW, I thought this was a great piece. BTW, what does that HOV sign on freeways mean?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 8, 2006 2:56 PM

I hate those things, too... and that's one of the primary reasons why I think I'm mismatched as a computer programmer. Computer geeks apparently LOVE those things. EVERYTHING is an acronym. SCSI HTML XML SOAP OOP IP CSS and I don't know what anything ever means.

What's wrong with words?

Posted by: i, squub on November 8, 2006 3:10 PM

Oh, that's one of my pet peeves, too, Donald, since freshly arrived in this our great country.

I thought I'm having a bad case of deja vu: abbreviations were the usual mode for numerous bureaucratic institutions in USSR since the 1920's. Even Mayakovsky had a poem about it! It was originally considered a sign of progress, a way of revolutionising speech: you talk less, spend less time on chat and still everyone understands you. As if.
Numerous comedians (and comic writers) made fun of the thing for decades. I come here, to the new country - and what's the first thing I meet? NYANA

My own version of your NRA example:ADA. What comes first to your mind when you hear it?
In mine: Americans with Disability Act.

Posted by: Tat on November 8, 2006 3:59 PM

My favorite: NSFW

Posted by: Matt on November 8, 2006 4:12 PM

I used to hate acronyms, and I used to mutter along with the rest of you "WTF is wrong with words?" But I've loosened up about it some since email and blogs. I don't mind the basics: IMHO, FWIW, NSFW, WTF, and BTW all come pretty easily to my typing fingers these days. They're really handy, actually, and they make me giggle a bit too.

I ran across something new the other day: acronyms/abbreviations/whatevers in lower-case letters. I think this comes text-messaging. Anyway, "ty" equals "thank you." "tyvm" equals "thank you very much. There's probably a whole army of these little things that I'm entirely unaware of.

I'll never stoop to using smileys though. That's going too far IMHO. I mean, WTF?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 8, 2006 4:34 PM

I wonder when the British army gave up US for unserviceable?

Posted by: dearieme on November 8, 2006 5:10 PM

You didn't even touch on one of the biggest sources of acronyms and initialisms*: the military.

USA (not the United States of America), USN, USAF, USAFE, USAREUR, USDESEA (which became DoDDSEUR), ALCM, GLCM, MLRS, ComPacFlt (which used to be CinCPacFlt), DesRon, AP, APFS, APFSDS, APFSDSDU, HE, HEAT, HEAP, HESH. (I could go on for a really long time.)

* If you pronounce each letter separately (as for instance, NRA), it's an initialism. If you pronounce the initials as if they were a word (RADAR, SCUBA), it's an acronym.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 8, 2006 6:49 PM

Having worked in aerospace as well as the environmental field I have found that environmental consulting has just as many acronyms and initialisms: CERCLA, RCRA, CEQA, NEPA, NHPA, NRHP, CRHR, etc. Right down to ROW (right-of-way) and T/L (transmission line). Our EIS's and EIR's all have to include acronym dictionaries to keep track of it all. Just to be safe, we usually include the acronym dictionary if we have prepared an EA, IS, ND, MND, or my favorite a FONSI (Finding Of No Significant Impact). That last is pronounced like the "Happy Days" TV character's name.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on November 8, 2006 10:09 PM

HOV: High Occupancy Vehicle
More than one warm body in the car. No blow up dolls, etc. used to fake it in order to use the HOV lanes.

Posted by: Bill on November 8, 2006 11:39 PM

I like abbreviations when I understand them, but I agree that my reading grinds to a halt when I don't get the acronym. It's also amazing when people have gotten used to acronyms and just throw them around with people who have no reason to know. A friend kept saying she was working with the Defense Dept. on the "Brack." Huh? Actually---BRAC, "Base Re-Allignment Committee". Closing army bases.

Posted by: annette on November 9, 2006 10:36 AM

BRAC is an interesting case, since it stands for "Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission" (from their website). The obvious initialism would be DBCARC; getting to BRAC takes some gymnastics.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 9, 2006 11:40 AM

More military acronyms: the Hummer. GIs don't call it a Hummer -- they call it a Humvee, from High Mobility Multipurpose Wheel Vehicle (HMMWV), if I remember corretly.

Posted by: sj on November 9, 2006 12:22 PM

Y'all have me wondering if the mania for acronyms and initialisms (?) has a macho component. Geeks like 'em, engineers like 'em, military people like 'em ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 9, 2006 12:32 PM

I thought FUBAR came from the Vietnam war.

Posted by: Dirk Thruster on November 9, 2006 2:06 PM

Maybe, but when you consider that (for instance) DoDDSEUR stands for "Department of Defense Dependant Schools, Europe", just saying (approximately) "dodser" is quite a bit easier. That it also acts as an in-group signal is just serendipitous.

(Well, maybe not that last.)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 9, 2006 3:02 PM

Ha! My wife is writing an EA for a BRAC related project at VAFB!

Posted by: Reid Farmer on November 11, 2006 9:45 AM

I hope you've been able to run over to Lompoc; it's supposed to be very nice. (My dad was an MCCC at FEWAFB, so he trained at VAFB.)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 11, 2006 3:21 PM

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