Acronyms Gone Wild: A Perspective

Back in the day, when I worked at NASA, I came across a rare acronym. It was not unlike finding a rare species of bird in the wild because I had never seen anything quite like it: a two level acronym. The acronym was FGGE. But there’s the thing: each letter in the acronym was another acronym. For example, one of the G’s in FGGE was GARP, which stood for Global Atmospheric Research Project.  I figured if anyone wanted to know what the full derivation or meaning of that particular acronym was (other than an editor like myself or someone well acquainted with actual work of the project) then good luck.

Acronyms can be useful critters because they can compress information in the dense information-driven world that we all inhabit as professional communicators. Their overall use has progressed and multiplied across not just science and technology domains but also into business realms and even into cultural lingo (e.g. LOL in a text or an email.) Unfortunately, with that proliferation has come both over-use and applications that, quite simply, just don’t work.

Let’s look at a few cases. While it’s true that an acronym doesn’t necessarily need to be pronounced, if an organization is going to use it in what we might call a high visibility situation, then it should be readily pronounceable. However, in what seems to be a troublesome trend, some companies have taken to using them as corporate monikers. (Some acronyms, of course, can be pronounced indirectly as in the case of FGGE which we used to call “Figgy”.)

But what if a company does use an unpronounceable acronym? I can think of two cases right off the bat. One is a well-respected educational institution based in Worcester called MCPHS University  That stands for Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences which is a mouthful in and of itself. (Speculatively, perhaps the original intent was to compress all that into acronym form.) Another example that springs to mind is MAPFRE, the Spanish insurer that acquired Mass-based Commerce Insurance. In this case, the language difference was probably a factor so we can make some allowances. Nevertheless, I don’t think that any organizational name that can’t be easily referenced serves a company’s best interests.

Summing up, acronyms are highly useful tools in the editorial arsenal. But they need to be used in ways that enhance not inhibit communication.

– Tom Valovic

Tom Valovic is an editorial manager with IDC, a high-tech market research firm based in Framingham MA.  He is the author of “Digital Mythologies”(Rutgers University Press). Tom can be reached at tvalovic@gmail.com.

Comments

Acronyms Gone Wild: A Perspective — 1 Comment

  1. Hello Tom,
    This retired news copy editor agrees with your conclusion that makes usefulness of acronyms a priority.

    My beef is when writers resort to often to what we denigratingly called “alphabet soup.” A little creativity in the writing process can render, for example, WSU to the university or Worcester State and then back again to WSU. And apply that to any other acronyms that pop up in the story. It’ll save the reader from the soupy effect.

    I never did understand why college and university had to be in the same name of the pharmacy school.