On Acronyms

I wrote the following paragraphs in a text file on February 17, 2010, and then threw them into the attic of an external hard drive. I dimly remember believing that they needed a lot of editing. A few years removed, I can accept that just a little editing will do.

Some time ago, I read a passage about scientific writing—I wish I could find it, I’ve looked everywhere—that had this to say about acronyms: in many domains, especially technical ones, words have very specific meanings, and using a word just left of the right one could be misleading or even disastrous. But the words are long, and hyphenated, and to use them every sentence would be tiring. So you use it once, and then you use an acronym thereafter, and that’s how paragraphs come to be filled with symbols.

This might not be news to you, but it was certainly news to me! And something of a revelation, because: I’ve observed that the deeper I go into technology, the more I resist using technical words in public places. Especially to describe experiences.

There’s a reason that company and technical cultures thrive on acronyms and coined words; shared language helps you know who’s in and who’s out. Traversing all the opaque acronyms is a rite of passage and then a tool for survival, in local configurations. In diffuse groups (devoted to programming languages, for instance), the acronyms also serve as in-group signifiers, but also serve another purpose altogether: a one-of-a-kind cluster of letters that can be typed together looks like a word as far as a search engine is concerned, and if you invent a new word you own the global namespace in a very powerful way. Synonyms are hard to search for, and so are universal experiences phrased in different ways. Names of categories are easier, and so are names of brands. And so, it seems, are acronyms. Words form the structure and the substance of information, and if you own the acronym you’ve unlocked the path to information produced by an in-group. (But they’re context-specific; acronyms don’t actually belong to you, and so sometimes there’s unintentional overlap, which is almost better for the exclusionary: you must not only recognize these all-capital words, but recognize that their letters stand for something different and that the meaning is never guaranteed, depending on domain.)

There’s more at play here, though. Sentences littered with long words repeated are tiresome, but sentences littered with capital letters are alienating. They presume prior knowledge in a way that can seem smug or clueless. And, further: if you’re writing sentences whose nouns have no synonyms, even if the themes are universal, your readers will balk and feel excluded. Even large vocabulary words, as long as they’re rendered in lowercase, can be skimmed and skipped and understood in context. They might gesture to something general. Acronyms, however, almost always point to something specific, and so if you miss the point the meaning is entirely lost.

All of this is to say: in order to address universal themes, I’ve found it helps to use words that have synonyms.