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WDYTTM? - Essex Family Historian Sept 2012

IN JANUARY 2012 Andrew Britter gave a talk at the Essex Record Office to the Computer Section of the Society under the above title. He wanted his audience to work out that it actually meant "What do you think that means?" Some did!

Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations formed from the initial components of a phrase. They may be individual letters, parts of words, or a combination of both. While popular in recent years, particularly when texting on mobile phones, they have historical use not only in English, but also in foreign languages. Some easy examples from the world of genealogy are ESFH, DoB, LMA, GENUKI, LDS and TNA.

The term acronym is the name for a word made from the first letters of each word in a series - such as 'sonar', created from sound navigation and ranging. Modem day acronyms are known to have appeared in German in the 1920s and in English from 1940. Although the term acronym is widely used to describe any abbreviation formed from initial letters, most dictionaries define acronym to mean 'a word' in its original sense, while some include initialisms. According to the first definition, examples of acronyms are: NATO, scuba and radar, while examples of initialisms are FBI, HTML and MOT. An ancient example of an acronym (or should it be an initialism?) from before the Christian era is SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) - the official name for the Roman Empire.

In the latter part of the 19th century, an initial-disseminating trend spread through the American and European business communities and spawned some well-known examples, among which was Esso (from the initials for Standard Oil). The use of acronyms has become more evident since the mid-20th century. Advances in science and technology produced a stream of new and complex terms and so the practice of abbreviating words and terms became increasingly convenient. Among acronyms pronounced as a word containing only initial letters are AIDS, NATO, BASIC, ASDIC and RAM. Those containing a mixture of initial and non-initial letters are SPAM, SPIT, RADAR, GESTAPO, NABISCO, SONAR AND AMPHETAMINE.

Acronyms and initialisms often appear in jargon. The general reason for this is convenience and succinctness. They are also taught as mnemonic devices; for example in physics, the colours of the rainbow are ROY G. BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). They can also be used as mental checklists. In the early days of their training, pilots used GUMPS, which stands for Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Propeller, Seatbelts. Inconveniently long wads used frequently in related contexts can de represented according to their letter count. For example i 1 8n abbreviates intemationization, a computer science term for adapting software for worldwide use. The 18 represents the 18 letters that come between the 1' at the start and the 'n' at the end. Sithilarly, localization can be abbreviated 110n. In addition to the use of a specific number, 'x' can be used to replace an unspecified number of letters.

There is no agreement on pluralising initialisations; for example, should the plural of CD be CD's or CDs? Things get complicated when initialisms spelt with full stops are pluralised. For example, should compact discs become C.D.'s, C.D.s, or CDs?

Should Members of Parliament be M'sP or similar or M.Ps? Commonly, weapons of mass destruction are WMDs and so on. Numbers in names are often represented by digits, e.g. 4GL (Fourth generation language). Large numbers may use metric prefixes such as Y2K for 'Year 2000'.

There are pseudo-acronyms; these are common in companies trying to retain brand recognition while moving away from an outdated image. For example Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC to de-emphasize the role of frying in the preparation of its signature dishes. Pseudo-acronyms have advantages in international markets since they avoid having to translate the full name into local languages; International Business Machines is known as IBM throughout the world.

Re-branding can lead to what is known as RAS syndrome (redundant-acronym syndrome). An example of this is Trustee Savings Bank becoming known as TSB Bank. Another common example is RAM memory, which is redundant because RAM (random access memory) includes the initial of the word memory. It is quite common for acronyms to be examples of language-related urban legends. For example cop is commonly used as shorthand slang for policeman, but is presumed to be derived from 'constable on patrol'.

To finish, Andrew Britter gave two examples of long acronyms, one of 22 letters and another of 24 letters. These are related to the U.S. Navy. He concluded with the world's longest initialism. It is 56 letters long (only 54 in the Cyrillic original), and comes from the Concise Dictionary of Soviet Terminology.

by Don Hewer