September 7, 2010

Does it take modern minds to trigger Superfluous Acronym Proliferation (SAP)?

In a post below on the history of heavy metal, TGGP uses an unfortunately standard nickname for the Maiden and Priest sound -- New Wave of British Heavy Metal, always referred to as NWOBHM. If you read any social science article, textbook, or even popularization, you've no doubt come across all manner of pointless and confusing acronyms. They must require this in social science graduate programs, just like grant writing, as a career-building skill. You can easily detect the nerdy origins of the Game community by their extensive use of acronyms (PUA, LJBF, etc.).

Yet as far as I can tell from my admittedly limited reading of pre-modern authors, they would have found this practice repellent -- both the creators and the audience. Sure, they existed, but they were no more than a handful -- AD, RIP, INRI, etc. St. Augustine did not refer to the City of God over and over as CD. Compare with the terms in modern religion, i.e. social science, again by browsing their article abstracts. Dante did not uglify his descriptor Dolce Stil Novo by calling it DSN every time after the first use. Compare with names that current critics give to today's art movements: NWOBHM, EBM, etc. And Hobbes did not market his concept of the war of all against all with the Latin acronym BOCO, perhaps because it was too pronounceable -- only real estate acronyms are designed to sound mellifluous. Compare that to one of its modern counterparts, MAD (mutually assured destruction).

Even natural scientists did not used to be geeks, unlike today. Browsing through the Wikipedia article on string theory, I see references to TOE, QCD strings, and AdS/CFT correspondence (bonus points for the slash, though it could use hyphen too, or would that be gilding the lily?). Then I look through the article on classical mechanics and find not a single one! No reference to the law of conservation of angular momentum as the LoCoAM, for instance. Newton was above using his insights into the laws of motion as a pathetic excuse to manufacture another fleet of operose acronyms.

The practice destroys clarity, introduces unnecessary jargon, and further divorces the concept from the reality it's supposed to represent -- to further Platonify it. Somehow an unspeakable array of characters seems more pure and ideal than words or phrases that roll off the tongue, like the ancient Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH used to refer to their god. This showcases the backwardness of modern thinking, where we treat mankind's slapdash mental constructs as sacred, and the real world out there as profane. Also, they don't function merely as shibboleths, as every group makes tons of these without cranking out acronyms.

Clearly there's none of this funny business from the birth of the printed word up through the 17th C. Based on when autistic and Aspbergery traits start exploding, as seen for example by the rise of thick-skulled grammar Nazis and other top-down attempts to make human language mo, I'd guess that this mess got going during the 18th C. -- why follow the tradition of using words and phrases when it's more rational, efficient, and progressive to use acronyms? It must've really taken off during the 19th C., and of course by the end of the 20th it was deeply entrenched.

For all the rationalizations about how time-saving or ink-saving the acronym is, yet modern books blather on for much longer than pre-modern books do. Look at how easily you could condense a lot of novels compared to epic poems, and that's leaving aside that most pre-modern writings were not even as long as an epic poem -- or anywhere close. The same applies to today's non-fiction "idea books" compared to pre-modern ones. So the efficiency excuse is bogus. Semi-autistic geeks coin acronyms just to give their simple minds something easy to bat around, whether playing alone or with friends.


  1. LoCoAM lol - dude you should write for a magazine or something, get paid for this shit. even when youre wrong you're f'n brilliant

  2. I don't read much social studies literature, so perhaps I don't see it, but the overuse of TLAs and ETLAs is, I think, a sign of physical laziness, as much as mental laziness. Here in the early 21st C, people still type out everything, and condensing "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" into NWoBHM saves a *bunch* of time and keystrokes. If you're only using one acronym, it's not as efficient as control-V, but if you've got several different phrases you're repeating over and over, acronymity might suit you well.

  3. Actually, you are incorrect in stating that they are no more than a handful. Acronyms were used quite often in the ancient world.

    They were called Nomina Sacra, and one sees it all the time throughout different surviving texts of the Old and New Testaments.

    One also sees them on ancient Roman artifacts such as coins, as well. Instead of writing out "consul for the 7th time" they would just write out "COS III" Or instead of "Imperator" they would just write "IMP" Or instead of "tribune potestate" (power of the tribune) they would just write "TR POT"

    Also instead of writing out "Filio" (Son) they would just put "F".

  4. Survivalists and gun nuts are just about the least nerdy people around, yet if you look at any survivalist/gun nut blog you'll soon come across references to TEOTWAWKI: The End Of The World As We Know It, namely the complete collapse of the American economy and the country's descent into anarchy and possibly civil war. Many survivalists and gun nuts actually believe that TEOTWAWKI is almost upon us.


  5. I think acronyms are just in our DNA.

  6. That inscriptions had acronyms and abbrevs. lends credence to my theory that it's laziness. Why go to all the trouble to carve TRIBUNE POTESTATE when everyone knew what TR POT meant.

    On coins, it's a space thing. How much room would there be left for the queen's head on British coins if they had to spell out Victoria Regina, Defensor Fidei, Imperator Indiae?

  7. Perhaps anthropology is the discipline for you. The shortening of overly elaborate phrases of theoretical importance is frowned upon and associated with all manner of overly technocratic white males.

  8. Those other ancient examples aren't really acronyms in the sense discussed. They're squished to fit on coins, etc., and they don't refer to concepts, let alone ones that the creator of the acronym is trying to market.

    Acronyms in the modern period are usually neologisms that the person is trying to push to advance their career or make it look like their concept is more complicated than it really is, and is not driven by concerns about space.

  9. Acronyms are a feature of typed, rather than hand-written, language.

  10. Many scientific acronyms are created to "fit on coins" because space in scientific journals is valuable and should not be wasted. an author will literally be told to shorten his research paper to X pages so it can be published.

    The scientists who created paradigms, like Newton, Galileo, Pasteur, Hahnemann, Darwin, and others published in books. they tended not to use acronyms. there was no need; all their ideas were being described from scratch. their creation of a new paradigm allowed them to create new words as they saw fit.

    It seems like the densest acronym use occurs in the disciples that build on each other the most. each researcher must describe his work in terms of the work done by other researchers, and names his ideas based on the terms of his colleagues.

    For example, "UDP-glucose:glycoprotein glucosyl transferase" (UGGT) gets a very detailed name, each word helps describe what this protein does. neither the descriptive name nor the acronym were an attempt at one-upping his colleagues; utmost consideration is shown by describing the discovery using shared terminology. This long name + acronym method seems superior to naming the protein something nonsensical like “move-ase” or “Factor 23”; that's why itstuck.

    For the hard science terms with acronyms, general knowledge about the concepts the individual words represents usually gives clues to the meaning of the term. in contrast, neither NWOBHM nor New Wave of British Heavy Metal help me tease out the meaning behind the term without specific knowledge of the term.

    I think the heavy use of acronyms among social science papers is a result of their copying the practice from hard science papers. (social science tends to copy a lot of methods and culture from hard science) NWOBHM and EBM may well be degenerate cases of social science majors mimicking social scientists imitating hard scientists.

  11. They were called Nomina Sacra, and one sees it all the time throughout different surviving texts of the Old and New Testaments.

    The use of things like the Tironian Notes was also widespread, I believe, though antiquity to the Middle Ages. (Maybe, the difference is whether these things become terms of speech in and of themselves - indicative of a modern tendency to accept the arbitrariness of the sign/abstraction?)

    I wonder whether the redevelopment of interest in shorthand systems (late 16th century onwards) tracks this rise of "aspergery" traits.


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