I’ve been thinking a lot about acronyms lately. I shun acronyms because for a brief time I worked for IBM, and the fact that the company name is an acronym should suggest how important they are to the executive leadership of the company. Although, to be fair, IBM is not an acronym, strictly speaking. Acronym has come to mean any series of letters which stand for something else.
An actual acronym is a new word created by assembling the initial letters of other words that connote some meaning to the speaker or writer, such as MADD or SNAFU. By the way it helps a lot if it’s meaningful to the audience as well. But all too often today something we call an acronym can’t be pronounced, and in my opinion is therefore not a word at all. Have you ever tried to pronounce the “word” IBM?
There were so many of these bedeviled beasts at IBM, when people would speak, the alphabet soup that began to dribble from their mouths began to take the form of an arcane patois incomprehensible to the uninitiated. I often understood them but I found it challenging to reply in IBMese. It was kind of like my German.
I know how to order a beer in German. I know how to order another beer in German. I even know how to offer the equivalent of “a toast!” in German. That’s primarily because English is a Germanic language, and so all the important words sound very much like English words with a German accent. So although I can understand a little German, I can’t really communicate in German. Yeah; it was like that.
Most companies now have their own acronym-laced lexicon. At my last gig we had D1s, D2s, IRs, KPIs, SRLs, MQLs, MDMs, AEs, SEs, and CSMs, just to name a few. Then there are those little bastards that are the invention of the youth that replaced Val-speak when the WWW took hold and social networks powered by communication devices very much like those portrayed on Star Trek became all the rage. Now when you think something is funny you have to offer up “LOL” or “ROTFL” or the most ridiculous acronym of all IMHO, “LMAO”. What makes that last “acronym” ridiculous is that, not only is it not technically an acronym, it’s also a metaphor that doesn’t really make any sense.
You can’t pronounce it any more than you can pronounce “IBM”, but at least IBM means something tangible: International Business Machines. Could someone please write to me and explain what “Laughing My Ass Off” really means? Wouldn’t YAOCSOB (you are one clever SOB) be more meaningful? Not only can you pronounce it (yahk-sob), it’s a nested acronym (clever in its own right) that suggests your friend is clever too.
Present Day (figuratively speaking): I was sitting in a local watering hole with an aging food menu on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve had everything on the menu dozens of times and I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned to my friend Jeff who just ordered a club sandwich big enough to choke a horse. “Jeff” I began, “what was that thing we ordered when we were tired of everything on the menu?” “BLT” he replied between gargantuan bites.
Ah yes. A BLT. My hatred of acronyms momentarily abated. The waitress approached the table a few minutes later and my friend Tom ordered a burger. She then glanced my way and looked at me with a question in her eye. “I‘d like another beer please and I’d like to order something not on the menu but that you guys made for us once before: a BLT.” “What?” she inquired. “A beer and a BLT.” Her face immediately cloned my own countenance during all those conversations with other IBMers. A sort of puzzled look in the eye, supported by a scrunched up nose and an upturned corner of the mouth, all compounded by a slight rightward tilt of the head.
I responded to her nonverbal question by repeating my order sans acronym: “A Bacon Lettuce and Tomato sandwich, but add onions please.” Her expression did not abate. “What’s that?” she inquired. Momentarily exasperated, I paused, took a deep cleansing breath, and said “A sandwich with bacon, lettuce, and tomato between two slices of bread with mayo on each slice—only add some onions.” “Wait!” she replied as she pulled out a notepad and began to scribble.
Now at this point I must add that this is not a stupid woman. She has a working brain and has demonstrated her use of it on multiple occasions. But this one request completely threw her. After several repeated attempts to describe the sandwich in question Jeff offered “It’s essentially a modified club.” Obviously confused, she wandered back to the kitchen.
I would also like to pause for a moment and offer that once you add onions to a BLT it becomes a true acronym. You have a choice: the sandwich becomes a BOLT or a BLOT. I prefer BLOT because it sounds funny, but if you prefer BOLT, I won’t object. And, by the way, I had a smug sense of pride in the knowledge that I am the inventor of the BLOT, both the sandwich variation and the Acro-name—that is until God decided to take me down a notch by ensuring the following series of events.
A few minutes later the waitress returned with my beer and asked whether I wanted my sandwich girl-size or man-size. I promptly became as confused as our dear sweet waitron when I first placed my order, and who, by the way, was trying very hard to just make me happy. I just looked at her, searching my memory for some context like a spinning Rolodex. Apparently the cook convinced her that what I actually wanted was a bacon cheeseburger because she further inquired “Do you want two patties or one?”
“No patties!” I shot back, hating myself for losing my patience with her. Out came the note pad once again. “So what do you want again?” “A sandwich with bacon, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. No burger patties. Just the bacon, the lettuce, the onions, and the tomatoes, all of it between two slices of bread with mayonnaise. That’s it; nothing more.”
From that point forward it was a complete downhill slide. Food orders refused to arrive. Beer glasses went dry. Whiskey orders seemed to take hours. I gradually began to feel like a jerk for asking the establishment to make something not on the menu—as though I were single-handedly destroying their business. And with this gradual rising tide of self-loathing, another familiar feeling re-emerged: my utter contempt for acronyms.
I would like to take this moment to lay the burden of this debacle at the feet of a former U.S. President who (God rest his soul) is no longer with us and therefore cannot defend himself. The perfect scapegoat: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although he did not invent the acronym, he single-handedly integrated them into our culture.
In fact he liked acronyms so much his moniker was itself a pseudo-acronym. Now I’m not a conspiracy theorist. If I were, however, I would argue that the goal of the thing he did invent, The New Deal, was merely a platform for the invention of new acronyms that would be uttered by every American on a daily basis, thus galvanizing his place in American history. To sell the idea, though, he told my grandparents it would put Americans back to work—and maybe it did; I didn’t study post-depression economics.
However, I do know that this monstrosity made it culturally acceptable for people to make up new words at their whim, which further created two common side effects:
1) It gives these do-gooding expanders of our working vocabulary the opportunity to feel cleverly smug.
2) It ensures the further devolution of our language and by extension expands the opportunity to miscommunicate.
Thanks a lot FDR. My favorite sports bar still hasn’t recovered.