An 11-year-old showed me his science notebook this week and, pointing to a picture of the human body, said "That's the CNS."
"CNS. Central nervous system."
I feel that barely a day goes by that somebody doesn't toss a new acronym at me and react with surprise when I don't recognize it.
"Each group will pitch their MVP."
"Most valuable player?"
"Minimum viable product."
In a fast-paced and tech-centric world, acronyms are multiplying at an annoying rate, with things as mundane as a life jacket or bit of particle board getting labelled PFD (personal flotation device) or MDF (medium-density fibreboard) while realities as simple as institutionalizing the elderly or testing what you teach disappear behind the letters LRC (long-term care) or CBA (curriculum-based assessment). Leonard Nimoy succumbs not to emphysema but COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) while we pay our taxes not to Revenue Canada but to CRA. One of the most embarrassing revelations of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in Britain was surely that Prime Minister David Cameron thought LOL stood for lots of love not laugh out loud. A man who doesn't know his acronyms is a man out of touch with the times.
Okay, acronyms can be handy. Who wants to keep repeating the full name of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission? And a few even become as iconic as the CIA, FBI, RCMP or CBC. But mainly acronyms obscure meaning, often purposefully so. When the Canadian banks moved into the American market, they hid their geographic origins behind BMO and TD. When things go badly wrong in clinical trials, the researchers talk about an SAE – short for serious adverse event.
Education, computing and business all vie to be the worst offenders in making up acronyms for every possible organization, product or concept, but doctors always take the prize for shrouding specialized knowledge behind a string of letters – and then acting surprised when the public doesn't understand it's all about PCC. (That's patient-centered care.) The phenomenon is bad enough in medicine it has a name – acronymophilia – and there are some efforts to curb it. Still, the medical community seems more concerned that doctors may confuse their central nervous system with their clinical nurse specialist than that patients understand an MI (myocardial infarction) is a heart attack and they had better head straight to the ED (emergency department) – which was called ER until the public mastered that acronym.
There's a kind of tunnel vision to acronyms – it's just as obvious to me that COC stands for Canadian Opera Company as it is to you that's the Canadian Olympic Committee – and massive potential for confusion. Whenever someone introduces me to a new one, I check Wikipedia and I usually find my ignorance completely vindicated because their definition of their three or four letters will fall well down a long list of possibilities. The AMA, you say? Is that the American Marketing Association, the American Medical Association, the Alberta Medical Association or the Alberta Motor Association?
Yes, acronyms are euphemistic and obscurantist; they are also, if you are even slightly dyslexic (which I am), very difficult to remember. There's a Toronto restaurant where I sometimes eat that has a three-letter name. The first letter is T but to remember the rest (and thus have any hope of finding it online and making a reservation) I have to recall that its sister restaurant is The Harbord Room. So, that's T-H-R. I repeat it to myself, trying to make stop my brain from sneaking a B in there, possibly because of the prominent B in Harbord, possibly because H and B look similar, or possibly because the acronym reminds me of an old Hamilton rail line known as TH&B (Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo).
I like the restaurant, but for me, its name is next to useless as an identifier. Similarly, I find the OLG branding for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is confusingly similar to the texting short form OMG and that Dominique Strauss-Kahn's name is difficult enough to remember without the media reducing it to DSK. On quick reading, I simply don't notice the difference between a PDF attached to an e-mail and that PFD sitting on the dock.
To my mind, all but the most iconic acronyms are blanks; unlike full words, they don't conjure up any picture or connotation. That's why I think the Canadian Recording Industry Association was smart to rename itself Music Canada, and that HotDocs is a better name for a film festival than TIFF – and that the Toronto Irish Film Festival should abandon TIRFF and get a life. I like the British preference for metonyms over acronyms for public organizations: London's police force is known officially as New Scotland Yard; it's the Royal Opera Covent Garden. And there's something to admire in the efficient wit with which Americans shorten the names of celebrities and neighbourhoods, quickly coining J.Lo and A-Rod, Tribeca and NoHo. But most of us labour at the dull and confusing end of acronyms, paying our taxes to CRA until an MI finishes us off.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the tabloid involved in the British phone-hacking scandal.