The unstoppable advance of the acronym

This week I went to Germany where I discovered they have a word for being excessively fond of abbreviations.

The word is abkürzungsfimmel and it makes sense in a language with words of such dire length that they look as if they’ve been typed on a keyboard with no space bar.

But the mania for acronyms, initialisms and other abbreviations is just as rife outside Germany, despite years of moaning about how profoundly these terms confuse, exclude and generally exasperate.

In fact, the trend is growing and resistance is so obviously pointless that I have begun to think it best to look for the upsides in the genre.

It helps to remember that abbreviations date back to at least the time of Cicero, when ancient Romans shortened Senatus PopulusQue Romanus — the senate and people of Rome — to simple SPQR.

These shortcuts have exploded in more modern times as advances in science and technology have brought longer, more complex terms that many sectors rushed to abridge, not least the business world.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was sent a new book that contained not one, not two but three pages listing the acronyms readers were likely to encounter inside.

There was a reason: it was a book about climate finance, which meant it covered the chronically abbreviation-heavy worlds of both climate change and finance.

The list’s P-words alone included PRI (principles for responsible investment); PPA (power purchase agreement) and PPP, which means purchasing power parity and, confusingly, public-private partnerships.

There was a time when I would have seized on this as another example of the idiocy of abbreviation. One reason I used to admire Elon Musk was his repeated order to SpaceX and Tesla staff to shun “acronyms or nonsense words” on the grounds that “anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication”.

I have an email folder headed Acronyms Gone Mad where I file the inhibited business communication that regularly washes into my inbox.

The top-ranked contender so far this year is: “CSI names FIS veteran Linda Fischer COO, appoints new CRO, CPO and SVPs”. But competition is tough, especially since the rise of crypto.

Last year I received an email quoting a trading platform CEO declaring, without explanation: “The UST and LUNA situation, along with the big recent BTC dips, are a clear example of how anything can go wrong in the volatile world of cryptocurrency.”

Faced with this remorseless tide, I find it helps to remember how much power a well-placed abbreviation can have.

A writer on the FT’s Lex column once memorably used the acronym PIGS to describe the economic woes of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, in an item headlined Pigs in muck.

As the paper’s then editor, Lionel Barber, later wrote in his memoir, The Powerful and the Damned, this provoked outrage. Readers accused the paper of sinking to the level of The Sun and Daily Mirror, while the Spanish embassy in London complained that “pig” was one of the most pejorative terms in the Spanish language.

Alas for the embassy, the Pigs have endured, probably for the same reason acronymic behaviour has engulfed, of all places, Washington DC: it produces memorable, catchy words that stick in an age of distraction.

Back when I worked in Washington, more than 20 years ago, members of Congress tended to introduce bills with the dull, sober titles you see in legislatures around the world.

Since then, Capitol Hill has become a hotbed of the reverse-engineered acronym known as the “backronym”.

Thus the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or Cares Act, was followed by Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors, or Chips, and the Crook Act (Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy).

Captivating analysis by a writer on the Atlantic magazine last year showed about 10 per cent of bills and resolutions introduced in the previous two years had backronym names, up from roughly one in 20 a decade earlier and less than 1 per cent in the late 1990s.

The thing about these names is that they manage to achieve what so many abbreviations do not: instant understanding. The world would not be a better place without them. If only we could say the same about every one of their ilk.

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