There are several articles on jargon elsewhere on this site, and in 2018 I wrote about the proliferation of acronyms and their effect on listeners and readers too (that article is here*). Now in 2021 the cult ‘appointment television’ crime series Line of Duty has reignited debate on the status of codes and abbreviations as a mainstay of officialese and the private, exclusive languages that both fascinate and intimidate the public. The long-running hit police drama The Bill is due to return to screens very soon, no doubt introducing civilians to some updated terminology and slang of its own.
In March I spoke to Amit Katwala, who was researching this topic for Wired magazine, and the resulting article is here, followed for any students, teachers – and fans of Line of Duty – by a list of links to sources of both real-life and fictional acronyms and discussion of them…
While the Sun satirises them, the Guardian has perceptively gone beyond the linguistic challenges and plot contortions in Line of Duty and detected underlying references to current political realities…
Articles published earlier this week reignited debate about punctuation – one of the favourite subjects for online peevers and pedantic Twitterati. The articles seemed to be suggesting that traditional punctuation, or some of its components, could now be misinterpreted or convey quite different meanings to those originally intended.
The articles in fact were focusing on the full-stop or period as used in messaging apps, in particular on WhatsApp. Younger users of the platform reported that a full-stop at the end of a message indicated aggression, grumpiness or passive-aggression, as opposed to the neutral finality signalled in more traditional contexts.
And this – context – is the key. The young devotees of messaging apps are unconcerned with the formal written English demanded in the case of essays, business letters, reports, even mainstream journalism. Their interactions are happening somewhere else and intended to achieve something else, too. My 20 year-old son tells me that his messaging environments simply make traditional usages redundant – and worse, if applied they cause misunderstandings in tone and affect.
Mentioning this on Twitter provoked this response: ‘I’m Gen X — part of the generation that invented the internet. As the late Rutger Hauer said, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” My cohort literally invented all internet and messaging and texting traditions. Some spotty oik’s opinion is non-salient.’
Some other older internet and phone users were equally indignant, fearing they were being required to adopt the sloppy or unconventional habits of callow youth, but if we’re having to message across generations (which probably happens rarely anyway) we/they won’t make the same assumptions/impose our conventions on one another, surely?
Like all instances of language in use the language of messaging is context-sensitive and depends on interlocutors’ intentions, assumptions and reception of the ‘utterances’ in question. We adjust our conventions to accommodate – if we can, so we should indeed worry about full-stops, but only on WhatsApp, Facebook Messaging or Instagram.
The crucial point is that the electronic communications we are considering, although they have to be typed, are not examples of writing as we know it, but of something else. Messaging is effectively a verbal imitation of the very rapid to-and-fro of informal speech and that’s what it tries to render with its novel disregard of commas, colons and semi-colons, ellipses (the … that I am addicted to) and its innovative play with capitals, full-stops and exclamation marks. The notorious initials and acronyms – LOL, SMH, POS and the like – were invented in order to cope with accelerated exchanges, although my children tell me that this abbreviation style is ‘very 2012’ and ‘so over’. Like many grownups I came to it much too late and was humiliated on national radio for thinking SMH meant ‘same here’, as mischievous young informants had told me (for the uninitiated it means ‘shaking my head’ in disbelief or exasperation). I do still use IMHO (in my humble opinion) when pontificating on Twitter. If feeling particularly passive-aggressive, IMVHO.
Because neither conventional writing nor sparse message-speak can convey the tone and import of this kind of conversation, emoji are required to compensate for body language, tone of voice, etc. Emoji can to some extent contribute the missing tonal and affective dimension to digital text but there is still no easy way to flag sarcasm, for example (I never ever come across ~*~sparkle sarcasm~*~ punctuation, or the 2011 attempt at a sarcasm font using back-sloping italics).
The two recent articles that triggered the latest debates were from the BBC website:
I talked on BBC Radio about the full-stop and the punctuation age-gap and a vox-pop carried out by the BBC in Derry confirmed that, at least in that city, younger messagers and texters were all familiar with the new conventions and with the misunderstandings that could arise.
There was a chance for me to pontificate again in an illuminating discussion last week, one of many on Twitter, on older people’s preferences for punctuation:
Humour me. What’s your favourite punctuation mark and why?
(If anyone actually responds to this I’ll be astonished 😂)
It has become a tradition for the major dictionary publishers, along with some linguists’ associations, to nominate a ‘word of the year’, a term (or in the case of Oxford’s 2015 crying/laughing emoji a symbol) which supposedly captures the essence of the zeitgeist, and in doing so marks the proposer as someone in tune with the times and with their target audience. The words chosen are rarely actually new, and by the nature of the exercise calculated to provoke disagreement and debate. I have worked with and written about what linguists and anthropologists call ‘cultural keywords’ and have my own ideas on which expressions could be truly emblematic of social change and cultural innovation. The words already nominated by the self-appointed arbiters are discussed at the foot of the page, but here, for what it’s worth, are mine (in order of preference)…
Yes, strictly speaking it’s two words, but this little initialism looks like a two-letter word and is processed by the brain as a ‘lexeme’ or a single unit of sound and sense. AI, artificial intelligence, is the hottest topic not only in tech-related practices but in fields as (seemingly) diverse as marketing, finance, automotives, medicine and health, education, environmentalism. Zdnet.com has published one of the most useful overviews of AI and its sub-categories and applications:
Though it is one of the most fashionable and most resonant terms in current conversation, a slogan and a rallying cry as well as a definition, AI is problematic in the same way as two other recent contenders for word-of the moment, CRYPTO and DIGITAL. The former is shorthand for all the very complex, not to say near-incomprehensible elements that have accompanied the invention of crypto-currencies – bitcoins and blockchains in particular. These advances have yet to prove their worth for most ordinary consumers who will often be bemused by new terminology that seems to be traded among experts somewhere beyond their grasp or their reach. In the same way for the last few years ‘digital’ has been a mantra evoking the unstoppable influence of new electronic media, (related SOCIAL was a strong candidate for buzzword of 2017). Digital’s over-use by overexcited marketing professionals, would-be thought-leaders and influencers has been inspiring mockery since 2016, as in the spoof article in the Daily Mash: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/nobody-knows-what-digital-supposed-to-mean-20160614109525
To put it almost as crudely as the Daily Mash does, there’s a sense in which almost no layperson knows, or can know fully, what Digital, Crypto and AI really mean, and the same goes for the expressions derived from them – ‘deep learning’ comes to mind. Their power derives from their novelty and their ability to evoke a techutopian future happening now. The phrase artificial intelligence was first employed in 1956 and its abbreviated form has been used by insiders since at least the early 2000s, but it is only now that it, and the concepts it embodies, are coming into their own.
At first sight just another over-syllabled buzzword escaping from the confines of academic theory (‘performativity’, ‘superdiversity’ and ‘dimensionality’ are recent examples) into highbrow conversation, intersectionality is actually an important addition to the lexicon of identity studies. It was coined as long ago as 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar who wrote that traditional feminist ideas and anti-racist policies exclude black women because they face overlapping discrimination that is unique to them. The word took 26 years to make it into the OED and is still unfamiliar to many, but during 2018 has featured in more and more debates on diversity and discrimination, marking the realisation that, for BAME women and for other marginalised groups, the complexities of oppression and inequality occur in a matrix that incorporates not only gender and ethnicity but such factors as age, sexuality and social class. There are each year a few forbiddingly formal or offputtingly technical expressions that do deserve to cross over into mainstream use. This I think is one of them and no journalist, educationalist, politician or concerned citizen should be unaware of it.
I was intrigued by the sudden appearance (sudden at least by my understanding) earlier this year – its online lookups spiked in June – of a decorous, dignified term in the midst of very undecorous, undignified public debate. This old latinate word’s denotations and connotations were in complete contrast with the ‘skunked terms’ and toxic terminology that I had collected elsewhere on this site. In fact, as is often the case, this word of the moment emerged from a longer tradition, but one largely unknown hitherto outside the US. Its proposer was Professor P.M Forni, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago. In 1997, together with colleagues he established the Johns Hopkins Civility Project — now known as the Civility Initiative — a collaboration of academic disciplines that addressed the significance of civility and manners in modern life. His ideas were seized upon by commentators on this year’s events in the US, with some asserting that the civil rights protests of the past were indeed more civil than today’s rancorous exchanges. Democrat Nancy Pelosi denounced Donald Trump’s ‘daily lack of civility’ but also criticised liberal opponents’ attacks on him and his constituency. Others pointed out that polite debate alone had never prevailed in the struggles against bigotry and violence and that civility was an inadequate, irrelevant response. Cynics inserted their definitions: ‘civility’ = treating white people with respect; ‘political correctness’ = treating everybody else with respect…which prompts the thought that perhaps, in recognition of realities on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s really ‘incivility’ that should be my word of the year.
Here, in the Economist, is the ‘Johnson’ column’s perceptive analysis of those other nominations for 2018’s word of the year:
In the New Year the American Dialect Society announced its own word of 2018, a disturbing euphemism employed by the Trump regime and a candidate for my glossary of toxic terminology (see elsewhere on this site):
Maria Hill: What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward? Grant Ward:Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Maria Hill: And what does that mean to you? Grant Ward: It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out “shield.”
Two days ago the UK press reported that the Minister for Defence Procurement, Welsh Conservative MP Stuart Andrew, had declared war. On acronyms. Confounded and irritated by the number of these abbreviations circulating in his office and beyond, he ordered staff to avoid them at all costs. ‘He got fed up with people coming into his office and reeling off a list of letters and assuming he knew what they were referring to,’ a source close to the minister said. ‘I thought DVD had something to do with movies!’ the hapless minister (who has never served in the armed forces) had quipped at a meeting four weeks earlier. DVD was the name of the event at which he was speaking. It stands for ‘defence vehicle dynamics’.
The flustered politician may have a point – one of the first documents to cross his desk was the latest 402-page guidebook to terminology used in the MOD (Ministry of Defence)*, referencing such titles as AARADCOM – the Army Armament Research and Development Command, and explaining that the initials CCU, for instance, could refer to
Central Control Unit Certificate of Clearance for Use (for software) Cockpit Control Unit Combat Control Unit Common Control Unit Communication Control Unit Computer Crime Unit
In vain did an unnamed MOD spokesperson respond: ‘These terms are used between subject matter experts and not with the general public.’
‘Acronym’ entered English in 1940, as a translation of German akronym, first attested in 1921. It is composed of acro- from Greek akron (tip or top) and the English combining form -onym, from Greek onoma, name. It denotes a word made up of initials or parts of other words, and should be pronounced as a word in its own right. It is not the same as an ‘initialism’ such as BBC or VIP or PC, where the letters are pronounced separately (the minister’s DVD falls into this category), or an abbreviation such as etc. or lb (pound) where the relationship between form and sound is not straightforward. So NATO, AWOL, laser (for ‘light amplification by simulated emission of radiation’, radar (‘radio detection and ranging’) are acronyms: ASAP (‘as soon as possible’) is an acronym if said like a word, BOGOF (‘buy one, get one free’) too, but not when said as separated letters.
Some more modern three-letter combinations are genuine acronyms – SIM (card) from ‘subscriber identity module’, GIF (‘ graphics interchange format’), however you pronounce it, and PIN (‘personal information number’) among them – but those familiar items of business-speak, ROI, SEO, B2B, SME – and now AI – are not, and nor, ironically is the disapproving or jokey shorthand TLA, for ‘three-letter acronym’ itself.
Lighthearted coinages SNAFU (‘situation normal, all fouled up’) or BOHICA (the oppressed officeworker’s injunction to ‘bend over, here it comes again’) are acronyms, but only a few of the so-called acronyms used in messaging and on social media really qualify: BTW, IDK, IMHO, SMH, TL;DR and the rest are strictly speaking initialisms. YOLO, LOL and ROFL, providing they are uttered in full, are among the exceptions.
The reason for the proliferation of acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations, and the justification for their use are obvious. In an accelerated culture they save us from having to – literally – spell out what we have to say or write and at the same time impart an idea of novelty, urgency and dynamism. As my correspondent Graham Guest observed on Twitter in a spoof response to Stuart Andrew’s protestations: ‘Minister, my radio detection and ranging equipment has just picked up a group of sea, air, lands wearing self-contained underwater breathing apparatus diving gear.’
Acronyms are very often controversial, in the same way as jargon and slang, in that they mystify and intimidate those who aren’t familiar with them, and seem to confer prestige and privilege on those who know how to use them. They can reinforce an insider/outsider imbalance in power in the workplace, the seminar – or the ministerial briefing. A very simple test, though, is to try and replace the offending acronym with its full translation or explanation and see if the resulting sequence of speech, or text, sounds or looks viable. If it’s necessary to introduce a new abbreviated form, it must be glossed (translated into simple language) the first time it is used, and, as with all insider codes, should only be employed in a context where interlocutors, partners, stakeholders, clients or audiences will readily understand it.
In April 2019 the BBC tried to forestall mockery of the acronyms peppering the script of its Line of Duty series by posting this synopsis:
‘A UCO is embedded in an OCG who was deployed as a CHIS but is AWOL. The SIO, who loves a REG 15, and his DI and DS from AC-12 are investigating because of the ED905 HGV ambush which the OCG set up as an RTC. They’re hunting H. Let’s go.’#LineOfDuty
You can hear me chatting about the latest acronym wars on BBC5Live radio (the sequence begins at 47 minutes 26 seconds):
As a footnote, my book of buzzwords and jargon, first published in 2007, contains examples of acronyms and abbreviations, many still in use, together with observations on the status conferred by mastering business-speak…
*An earlier version of it is here if you want to consult it: