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(Nobody knows your stupid acronym)

By Jessica Love


 

To be fair, I often don’t mind them. When the local boutique gym’s WOD includes HIIT and the instructions “AMRAP,” I saunter by that temple of sweat and steam in blithe ignorance. You, fancy gym, are an intricate world I need never understand. But then my bank or my utility company or my insurance agent contacts me with an acronym-studded entreaty and—now forced to decode a series of unfamiliar letter strings, lest something dire happen to my loan or electric bill—my serenity vanishes.

Acronyms have their place. “Both in bureaucracy and in technology, there are lots of precisely-defined entities and concepts for which there are no single English words,” writes Language Log’s Mark Liberman, who contends that acronyms are the most practical way of referencing such entities, so long as care is taken to properly introduce unfamiliar ones.

But I find it curious just how often such care is not taken. (Or if the communicative effort is long and arduous, retaken; I have read books in which an acronym will appear 90 pages after it was introduced.) I wonder: might our tendency to treat familiar acronyms like regular words be to blame?

When a community—be it the local gym, the American Accounting Association, or the United States of America—replaces an unwieldy phrase with an acronym, it does so for the ease of its membership. Who wants to waste time advertising a “workout of the day” featuring a “high-intensity internal training session” with “as many reps as possible” when WODs and HIITs and AMRAPs will suffice? But does this process succeed so completely that, for people in the know, the acronym gradually transitions from being a stand-in for an entity to being a legitimate word for that entity—often the word for that entity?

Both behavioral and neurological studies confirm that we at least superficially treat familiar acronyms—but not unfamiliar ones—much the same as other words. In the most thorough of these investigations, psychologist Morton Ann Gernsbacher finds that both an acronym’s literal meaning (that FBI stands for the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and its conceptual meaning (that FBI is a criminal justice and intelligence agency) are processed when we encounter them. At first the literal meaning is more activated in memory. But over the next second or so the pattern seems to reverse, and the conceptual meaning—the acronym’s word-like quality—comes into its own. And it is easy to imagine that, over much longer periods of time, the more familiar an acronym becomes, the more—and the earlier—we rely on its word-like quality. (Sometimes the transformation is completed: anyone remember when scuba stood for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus?)

We’re generally excellent at tracking information about who knows what—information known to linguists as common ground. We don’t explain the strange holiday known as “Thanksgiving” to our American friends; neither do we expect our coworkers to know our brother’s birthday. But maybe we let befuddling acronyms slip into our communications because they’re not a fact about a thing so much as the way we’ve encoded the thing itself. (Question for another day: might we on some level want the insider status acronyms confer upon us?)

It is in everyone’s best interests to avoid (or explain) unfamiliar acronyms. But, at least for unedited communication over email or the phone, is this realistic? Would doing so be the equivalent of asking someone to avoid using adjectives, or words that begin with the letter p?

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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