Friday, May 30, 2014

Acronym Acrimony

So, my last post, Filler Up!, was on an area of nonverbal communication, and it's only fair that I follow it up with a post on verbal communication. In this case, it's on abbreviations, and especially acronyms, which are abbreviations that form a word—for example SNAFU is pronounced as one word, and therefore an acronym, as opposed to vocalizing it as ess-en-ay-eff-yu. And in case you don't know what it stands for, and I hope you will excuse the profanity, it's, Situation Normal, All Fucked Up, and like FUBAR, Fucked Up Beyond All Repair (or Reason or Recognition), is an example of military slang.

But note that while slang traditionally refers to a form of speech that has not been legitimized by appearing in print, acronyms and abbreviations are by-products of written communication, and the alphabet. (By the way, it seems that the story that the curse word spelled eff-yu-cee-kay is an acronym, something I recall hearing about in schoolyard back when I was in elementary school, is just an urban legend, at least according to Wikipedia.)

So, if the abbreviation can't be pronounced, it can't become an acronym. For example, HTML lacks any vowels, and it would be awkward and not very compelling to pronounce it as something like hitmul, so we just say aych-tee-em-el. If it is pronounceable, then it may be turned into an acronym, but it's not inevitable that it will be. For example, the abbreviation USA could be pronounced as oossa or youza, but it isn't, its you-ess-ay (repeated ad nauseum as a cheer if you like).

I should add that some acronyms are back formations that take an actual word and work out a workable phrase that it can serve as an abbreviation of. For example, a simple computer programming language that was popular once upon a time was dubbed BASIC, which stands for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Similarly, Marvel Comics turned the word SHIELD into an acronym for its fictional spy agency, originally having it stand for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division, and then later changing it to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, and then in their films and television programs to Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.

Speaking of which, I think they did a pretty good job on the new Agents of SHIELD television program on ABC, which recently completed its first season. And speaking of comics, one of the all-time great acronyms is SHAZAM, which stands for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Shazam was the name of the wizard who gave the superhero Captain Marvel his powers, or rather who gave young Billy Batson the ability to turn into Captain Marvel by shouting, Shazam! 

Captain Marvel had powers similar to Superman's, so DC (an abbreviation of Detective Comics, although it was then known as National Comics) sued Fawcett Publications, and Fawcett eventually agreed to stop publication of Captain Marvel. DC later bought the rights to publish Fawcett's superheroes, including Captain Marvel, but in the meantime Marvel Comics had introduced their own superhero with that name, naturally enough given the name of that company, and DC consequently has been using Shazam more and more over the past few decades in reference to the character instead of Captain Marvel, and recently renamed the hero Shazam, dropping Captain Marvel altogether. 

Anyway, the point here is that the exclamation, Shazam!, worked its way into popular speech, and while its meaning as an acronym is still present in the comics, in other contexts that meaning was lost (which is reflected by the fact that it's printed as Shazam and not SHAZAM). This compilation of clips from the 1960s CBS sitcom, Gomer Pyle, USMC (pronounced yu-ess-em-cee), starring Jim Nabors, while a bit obnoxious, demonstrates how he used shazam! as an exclamation alongside golly and gosh (slang words that are not abbreviations of anything), and utterly devoid of its acronmymic meaning. This, by the way, was the first I ever heard of the expression, as the original Captain Marvel comic ceased publication several years before I was born, and he wasn't resurrected by DC until I was a teenager. Anyway, through Gomer Pyle, Shazam! was transformed into a kind of military slang, at least on television. And also on record album, it appears:

But this winding and long-winded introduction is meant to introduce the topic of abbreviations and acronyms as a part of the public discourse of our culture, and following the same pattern as my last post, the fact that I have some comments on the topic began with a query from Palash Ghosh of the International Business Times, which I'll provide first, along with my response.  In this instance, Ghosh sent me the following query: 

can you make a comment on the use of acronyms and abbreviations in media.

I have noticed that media/newspapers/magazines in my native India use abbreviations and acronyms all the time–perhaps even excessively. I realize the acronyms and abbreviations are necessary as short-cuts and they are also used in western media–but do you such things are used too much in media? If so, do they serve to confuse the reader? Do most media have to use these things due to the urgency of instantaneous communications?
And here now is my reply:

Acronyms and abbreviations are quite common in American culture. For example, POTUS recently delivered the SOTU, many members of the SCOTUS were present, and it went off without a SNAFU, and most Americans who watched it on TV thought it was OK. It seems as if we never pass up an opportunity to shorten a word, either by cutting off syllables, which is why the head of a committee is called a chair now, rather than substituting chairperson as a non-sexist alternative to chairman, or by substituting initials for full names and terms. Sometimes I think us Americans would be happiest if we could only reduce our words down to a series of grunts.

Abbreviations and acronyms are an unintended consequences of the invention of the alphabet, and have their origins in antiquity. When words could only be written out by hand, or even more laboriously chiseled out of stone, abbreviations were welcome, sometimes necessary to make words fit into a limited space, and had the added utility of functioning as icons for the illiterate, who could recognize the look of the symbols and recall their meaning without actually reading, that is sounding out, the letters. For example, in ancient Israel, the name Maccabee, associated with the holiday of Hanukkah, is an acronym that stands for Mi Chamocha Ba'alim Adonai, the beginning of one of the oldest prayers in the Bible, translated as, "Who is like unto You among the gods (that are worshipped), O Lord?" In the early Christian church, abbreviations such as IHS were used as symbols for Jesus Christ--in this case IHS corresponds to the first three letters of the name Jesus in the Greek alphabet, iota, eta, and sigma, and is also said to stand for the Latin phrase, Iesus Hominum Salvator, which means Jesus, Savior of Men.

Gutenberg's invention of printing with moveable type made the need for abbreviations less pressing than before. While there still would be a degree of economy achieved in using initials and acronyms when typesetting a page, the investment made in spelling things out would be returned in the mass production of the document, as the mechanization of what was once written out by hand would yield economies of scale in the form of multiple, identical copies with increased legibility, clarity, and accessibility. The invention of the telegraph in the early 19th century restored the need for economy of expression, as pricing often was based on the number of words used. As this first of the electronic media made instantaneous communication possible, speed went hand in hand with brevity, and the use of abbreviations and acronyms was intensified as never before. Telegraphic discourse not only was seen in the exchange of messages among individuals via telegrams, but in the transmission of news reports over the wires, which led newspapers to adopt the pyramid structure for articles (beginning with the most important information in the first paragraph, and continuing in descending order, rather than in telling a story in linear fashion from beginning to middle to end), the mosaic look of the front page (again, nonlinear and anticipating the current hypertextual interface of the World-Wide Web), and the big, bold headline, where abbreviations and acronyms were visually trumpeted. This made telegraphic discourse, including the use of abbreviations and acronyms, a central part of the culture.

Telegraphic discourse was further intensified by the addition of wireless telegraph, radio, and television, but it is especially in communication via electronic text that it is most apparent. This begins with the use of email going back to the 70s, and is reinforced a little later by the addition of synchronous messaging, aka chat, which puts even more pressure on the participants communicating in real time to use the fast, most efficient means of sending messages. The further economy imposed by the 160 character limit of SMS or text messaging via cell phones, and Twitter's 140 character limit piggybacking on top of SMS, has led to an explosion of such textual devices as lol, brb, bff, not to mention the innovation of emoticons, the use of typographical symbols to convey facial expressions and emotional states.

There are times when speed and efficiency are necessary, and times when the available writing space is limited, so that economical use of abbreviations and acronyms can be helpful. Acronyms also can serve mnemonic functions, as for example students memorize the names of the Great Lakes through the acronym HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). But in American culture, and in technological societies in general, the extent to which telegraphic discourse has come to dominate contemporary communication is a symptom of what Jacques Ellul called "the humiliation of the word." It represents a loss of the richness of language, a disregard for poetics and rhetoric, for eloquence in human communication, and as well a loss of nuance and precision, and consequently an increase in the likelihood of misunderstanding. Our overuse of abbreviations and acronyms is one of several facets of the degraded form of discourse that constitutes communication in the 21st century.

So that was my take on the media ecology of acronyms, and how we may be abbreviating ourselves to death, as well as informing, amusing, and amazing ourselves to death as well. 

So now, on February 5, 2014, the International Business Times published Ghosh's article on the subject, which is entitled, Alphabet Soup: Why Is Indian Media So Obsessed With Acronyms And Abbreviations?  And while he did bring up India in his query, I will admit to being surprised that his article focused on India, which made for an interesting cross-cultural comparison:

Consider the following passage from a recent article published in The Hindu newspaper of India: “CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat on Monday expressed hope that the AIADMK-Left alliance would ensure success in Tamil Nadu.”

Or this paragraph from Indian Express: “The allegations against Jaitley and Modi came from AAP MLA from Kasturba Nagar, Madan Lal… Reports suggested that Lal was one of the MLAs who would support expelled AAP MLA Vinod Kumar Binny. Along with JD(U) MLA Shoaib Iqbal and Independent MLA Rambir Shokeen, Binny had threatened to pull down the AAP government.”

Or this ditty from India Today: “Final postmortem report from the medical board of the doctors of AIIMS is awaited. This final report will also take toxicology report from CFSL/CBI into consideration… On January 30 at around 5 pm, he was brought dead in AIIMS accordingly a case u/s 302 IPC & 3 of SC/ST Act was registered."

With respect to the first example, CPI(M) refers to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – to distinguish it from the regular Communist Party of India, which is usually labelled as just CPI.

The AIADMK refers to the extravagantly named All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the political party that currently runs the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

In reference to the second example, AAP refers to the Aam Aadmi Party, a new anti-corruption party that swept into power in the capital city of Delhi. MLA means Member of Legislative Assembly – an office that is just below MP (Member of Parliament). JD(U) refers to Janata Dal (United), a center-left Indian political party.

In the incomprehensible third example, AIIMS refers to the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (a group of public medical schools across the country), while CFSL is the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, a branch of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs. Also, CBI stands for the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s principal police investigation agency. The last sentence in that paragraph simply may seem to defy translation – but 302 IPC refers to Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, while SC/ST Act refers to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, a law designed to prevent abuse and mistreatment of lower-caste Indians.

In any case, these three passages underline one of the fundamental realities of Indian media and communications – the obsession with acronyms and abbreviations. For the uninitiated, reading an Indian newspaper, magazine or government publication could become quite daunting.
At this point, we do get a connection to American culture, and perhaps to the English language in particular:

Of course, such devices are used to save space and time – and they are also widely used in Western media. For example, in the United States, John F. Kennedy has become the iconic “JFK,” while in Europe the notorious Dominique Strauss-Kahn has metamorphosed into the more familiar “DSK.”

Still, in the English-language media of the Indian subcontinent (which also includes Pakistan and Bangladesh) the use of acronyms and abbreviations in communications seems almost pathological. Within India itself, the plethora of political parties, political groups and titles for lawmakers, military personnel and educators has created an immense reservoir of acronyms and abbreviations that boggle the readers’ mind and threaten to drown the meaning behind the text of media pieces. The inundation of so many acronyms likely looks like gobbledygook to non-Indian readers.

Patralekha Chatterjee, a New Delhi-based journalist, admitted that Indian media rely too heavily on the use of acronyms, but explained the realities behind this practice. “Sometimes, it is also because of the constraints of space,” she said in an interview. “Space is at a massive premium because of [advertisements], etc.” In addition, the name of some Indian political parties and luminaries are so long, like the aforementioned All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, that abbreviations become necessary.

Indeed, English may be the lingua franca of Indian media, finance and politics, but it is a second language for hundreds of millions of people who speak hundreds of other different languages and thousands of dialects – rendering the use of an alien tongue a questionable and imperfect attempt to foster a kind of national unity.

But something has gotten lost in the translation.

Chatterjee also noted that most Indian journalists try to squeeze in some context and write the full name of an organization (or political party or branch of government, etc.) at the start of an article and then follow with acronyms. “But it ultimately depends on the readership,” she said. “If the [editorial] desk thinks [that] most of your readers would be familiar with a certain acronym, then it is used. But if you are referring to something which would be unfamiliar to the average reader of the newspaper/magazine, then it is the full name.”

Since Chatterjee writes for the international and national media, she tries to minimize the use of acronyms in her works. “I can imagine all this being extremely confusing to a foreigner or someone who is not familiar with what is going on in India and picks up a newspaper/magazine,” she conceded.

It's an interesting question. Certainly, the use of acronyms is a general function of the alphabet, and in some ways amplified by typography. And it does seem as if the English language in its written form makes greater use of abbreviations than other languages, perhaps because of the idiosyncrasies of English spelling? But its overuse does strike me as an effect of electronic communications, and the technological drive towards greater and greater efficiency. Those factors, I would think, are what have pushed this usage over the edge.)

The practice has also become epidemic in the United States. On a blog for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, John McIntyre called for a limitation on the use of abbreviations, amidst concern that their presence may compromise readability. “Professional publications embrace abbreviations and acronyms much more readily as a kind of lodge handshake identifying who is in the club,” McIntyre wrote. “Lawyers and civil servants are particularly addicted to the practice.” McIntyre suggested that his personal preference is to minimize abbreviations and acronyms “because they distract me and quickly convey a leaden bureaucratic tone to articles.”

As in India, documents produced by the U.S. government, medical, military and scientific organizations are typically overwhelmed with acronyms. As a blogger on the Baltimore Sun complained: “As one who has spent many hours editing Defense Department documents, I have seen too many pages reduced to incomprehensible alphabet soup by acronyms. Their use should be minimized; that's not even a question.”

What about my response, you may be wondering at this point. Or probably not, but I'll remind you anyway, and here it comes:

It seems as if we never pass up an opportunity to shorten a word, either by cutting off syllables, which is why the head of a committee is called a chair now, rather than substituting chairperson as a non-sexist alternative to chairman, or by substituting initials for full names and terms, commented Dr. Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and associate ‘chair’ for undergraduate studies at Fordham University in New York. “Sometimes I think us Americans would be happiest if we could only reduce our words down to a series of grunts.”

And that's all, at least for now, as we get a second opinion on the inhospitality of the practice:

No less a figure than J.W. “Bill” Marriott, the executive chairman and chairman of the board of the hotel chain Marriott International Inc. (NASDAQ:MAR,) has spoken out against the excessive use of abbreviations. In a witty blog he titled “T.M.A. – Too Many Acronyms!,” Marriott bemoaned the infiltration of acronyms and abbreviations in daily communications. “We have far too many acronyms,” he lamented. “It started with government agencies (GOV), and it has invaded corporate (CORP) headquarters (HQ). Like an invasive species, it’s threatening to choke off innovation.”

As a native of Washington, D.C., he noted, acronyms are part of his very blood. “There’s DC [District of Columbia], DOD [Department of Defense], DOT [Department of Transportation] and DOJ [Department of Justice],” he quipped. “Don’t confuse the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] with the FEC [Federal Election Commission] or the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and FDA [Food & Drug Administration]. We all know the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], NIH [National Institutes of Health] and EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. In the corporate world, we tremble when we hear SEC [U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission], IRS [Internal Revenue Service] or FTC [Federal Trade Commission].”

Marriott noted that the three-letter acronyms seem to have a “prestige and status” over the four- or five-letter ones, citing that the longer acronym usually salutes the shorter one – i.e., NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] to DOT or DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]to DOD. “I’ll leave you with my favorite acronym: STML – short-term memory loss,” Marriott concluded. “Let’s forget these useless acronyms. Chances are we already have. We don’t understand them.”

Now the emergence (and seeming omnipresence) of social media will likely give acronyms an even higher place in our daily lives – and that’s nothing to LOL about.

Ghosh does give me the last word, however:

But Strate cautions than acronyms have a long history and are likely to remain as long as humans communicate.

“Abbreviations and acronyms are an unintended consequences of the invention of the alphabet, and have their origins in antiquity,” he noted. “When words could only be written out by hand, or even more laboriously chiseled out of stone, abbreviations were welcome, sometimes necessary to make words fit into a limited space, and had the added utility of functioning as icons for the illiterate, who could recognize the look of the symbols and recall their meaning without actually reading, that is sounding out, the letters.”

Still, as a scholar and one who wishes to preserve the beauty of language, Strate laments: “Our overuse of abbreviations and acronyms is one of several facets of the degraded form of discourse that constitutes communication in the 21st century.”

And there you have it! Acronyms are, in moderation, a bit of a SHAZAM!-like magic transformation. But used too frequently and it's SNAFU, with language and culture threatening to go entirely FUBAR. At least, that's my abbreviated take on the matter.


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