LEVITY – OR LEVY-T?

Wordplay to keep the world at bay

We are halfway through January now. The Holibobs are over and we have come to the end of Chrimbo Limbo – that uncertain period between Christmas and New Year. Dishy Rishi is still in number 10 and, despite unprecedented crises in the health services (though the Panny-D seems to have subsided and Locky-D is just a memory) and family finances (in meltdown due to the Cozzi-Liv), we will have to wait until next year for a Genny-Lec (and perhaps the predicted Labby-Maj once the votes have been counted).In the midst of adversity, on social media (on Facey-B, Insta-G, and even Linky-D) the usual barrage of banter, badinage and bonhomie continues unabated nevertheless. As my Twitter friend Amanda comments…

Platty Joobs’ (for Platinum Jubilee in case you missed it) and ‘famalam’ have a Professor Stanley Unwin feel, for me and possibly others of my advanced years. Unwin was an eccentric old chap who used to perform monologues on the radio in the 1950s in which he mangled words and phrases and challenged listeners to interpret what he was saying. ‘Unwinese’ added nonsense syllables, reversed syllables, jumbled parts of sentences – like children’s nonsense stories and nursery and baby talk does. Exaltation of childhood by way of whimsy and nonsense (as in the works of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear) has been an enduring feature of British literary and popular culture – perhaps a tactic by which we try to play down the dark side of life, smooth over social inequalities and make light of the blunders of our ruling class: deploying non-stop facetiousness, irony, cheek and irreverence in all everyday communications.

I spoke to Serena Smith, editor at Dazed Digital, about the sassy, cutesy – or cringe-inducing – humour involved in abbreviating, coining nicknames, dismantling and reassembling words and phrases in a particularly British manner, then a few days later answered questions on the same subject from Andrew Marr on LBC Radio. Serena’s article is here…

https://www.dazeddigital.com/life-culture/article/57904/1/why-do-british-people-love-to-abbreviate-things-cozzie-livs-platty-joobs

It’s heartening that, despite the seeming indifference of older commentators and experts, some, mainly younger academic linguists are beginning to study these developments, applying statistical techniques to tracking the spread of new terms and analysing specifics of their users. Dr Christian Ilbury of Edinburgh University, with whom I’ve exchanged ideas, has been doing this for some time and writes here of the online personas created and celebrated by new labels, catchphrases and in-jokes…

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/josl.12563

ACRONYMS – ALL IN THE LINE OF DUTY

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…

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/line-of-duty-police-jargon

ACTUAL (2019)

https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/plymouth-news/guide-to-police-slang-codewords-2074442

OLD-FASHIONED (THE BILL)

https://thebill.fandom.com/wiki/Police_lingo

ANECDOTAL, FROM THE 90S

http://www.f.waseda.jp/buda/library/seabrook.html

LINE OF DUTY 2021

https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/drama/line-of-duty-acronyms-abbreviations-guide/

THE MET’S OFFICIAL JARGON GUIDE

https://www.met.police.uk/foi-ai/af/accessing-information/met/glossary/

CAMBRIDGESHIRE POLICE’S VERSION

https://www.cambs.police.uk/information-and-services/About-us/Jargon

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…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/16/the-guardian-view-on-line-of-duty-more-about-our-politics-than-our-policing

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/10/15/at-war-with-acronyms-tmi-via-tla/

AT WAR WITH ‘ACRONYMS’ – TMI via TLA

 

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.”

— Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot episode

 

 

Stuart Andrew  MP

 

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’.

Image result for military acronyms word cloud

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.’

 

Image result for military acronyms

 

‘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.’

 

Image result for acronyms

 

You can hear me chatting about the latest acronym wars on BBC5Live radio (the sequence begins at 47 minutes 26 seconds):

https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/m0000pvp

 

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…

 

Shoot the Puppy

 

*An earlier version of it is here if you want to consult it:

Click to access acronyms_and_abbreviations_dec08.pdf