Thursday, February 17, 2011


Acronym Soup

This confession is really awful for an academic administrator, but it’s true. My brain has run out of space for new acronyms.

Acronym proliferation is out of control. It comes from many sources.

The most obvious is grant-funded programs. For whatever reason, a few decades ago someone decided that every grant-funded program needed a clever, upbeat acronym. As with many awful ideas, it was probably harmless enough at first. But the good ones went fast, and now each new iteration of a program needs its own spiffy new term.

Soon the state- and federally-funded programs followed. Now even local initiatives have to have acronyms.

The same letters tend to pop up in acronyms a lot. You don’t see many x’s, z’s, or f’s.. In the world of electronics, for whatever reason, every acronym has to have the letters c, e, and t. STEM has become an acronym without portfolio, taking on a life of its own as a generic term for science and math. One of my prouder moments as an administrator came last year when I noticed that a particular program was in danger of adopting an acronym that, when pronounced, suggested an unusual sex act. The components of the name were quickly and discreetly rearranged.

Some parts of the college tend to be more acronym-happy than others. Nursing, Teacher Ed, Adult Basic Ed, and Workforce Development tend to be the most prolific generators. The first two are heavily licensed and credentialed, which means you have agencies with acronyms generating programs with acronyms. The latter two are grant-heavy, which means there’s just no escaping it.

Over time, it’s hard to keep all the clever little names straight. They start to blend together. In the right context, too, you’ll sometimes hear three or four of them in the same sentence. Last week I endured one that was structured as follows: “The abab folks are collaborating with the cdcd project over at efef, in hopes of procuring a ghgh grant from ijij.” That’s just a crime against language.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s the worst acronym offense you’ve seen lately?

Other than some minor disagreement over how to pronounce an acronym (should the "g" be soft, as it is in its acronym component, or should it be hard, as if you were reading the acronym by itself?), I haven't come across any major ones here.

Then again, I'm 26 and have few problems with Internet acronyms, so maybe that's part of it.

I would ask that you share the name of the unusual sex act, though.
One of my favorites: FLABS (Foreign Language & Bilingual Studies)

Since foreign language study is not required at that school, many students (and probably some staff/administrators!) do consider foreign language to be a "flabby" option that they might be better off without. I suppose the unfortunate acronym fits, then.

The dept has tried to rename itself with the more contemporary and non-acronymic title "World Languages," but FLABS seems to have stuck.
I'm a publisher rather than an academic, but a director keen on acrynoms suggested one for my portfolio - PUBS. Which is fair enough, but my portfolio includes Built Environment Studies, rather than Building Studies...
Our department used to be called HUMPA for Humanities and Performing Arts - thankfully it was changed to HPA. Oh and our division used to be called LSD for Liberal Studies Division, but now it is A&S for Arts and Sciences. I thought LSD was kind of funny though...
In the world of electronics, for whatever reason, every acronym has to have the letters c, e, and t.

C for computer, E for electronics, T for technology?

My department in Oxford is called the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. I'm very glad that the Medieval is in there too - otherwise we'd be FML.
The STEM comment is genius.
Where I work, we have a database of acronyms that people use as an electronic decoder ring. But what really is confusing is when you have two things with the same acronym. Is a PA a physician assistant or a pathology assistant? Is an MA someone with a Masters or someone who is a Medical Assistant? etc.
Acronym Without Portfolio. (chortle) And "AWP" even makes a nice TLA (three letter acronym).

Have you heard acronyms turned into verbs? That gets really bad, and can lead to acronyms made entirely from acronyms.
Just be thankful that academia doesn't have acronym-disease as bad as the Pentagon. I can hardly finish a conversation with my friends there without having to stop and ask for an explanation at least once.
We have a faculty employment policy review committee, FEPRC, which I started calling "feeprick."
Some recent examples from Canadian universities: FLAPS (Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, York University); SLLUT (School of Languages and Literatures, University of Toronto).
I'm certainly showing my age - but who could forget "CREEP" - under President Nixon it was the "Committee to RE-Elect the President."
Our university has GET-GO:
General Education Teams for Goal Oversight. Ye gods.
Years ago, I was trying to find a concise way to talk about the sort of clipped writing that students do in electronic media (and that subsequently shows up in their academic writing). I *briefly* considered "Email And Text-Message English," but I decided against it.
The grad college at my grad school went from The Graduate College to Division of Graduate Studies (DoGS).

I also did some graphics work for a initiative that was something along the lines of American Indian Project for Leadership Endeavors. In my ignorance, I said oh, "AIPLE" (Apple). Turns out Apple is a very offensive term for Native Americans (akin to Oreo). The name quickly changed to American Indian Leadership Project. AILP wasn't great either but at least it wasn't offensive.
LBJ took the IRT down to 4th Street USA. When he got there, what did he see? The youth of America on LSD.



Love me some acronyms, especially the ones that have an illicit interpretation.
Does acronym-ization have anything to do with trying to seem more professional-training oriented? For example, in my humanities department, our undergraduate program is full of acronyms for off-campus study programs, internship-to-degree programs, "enrichment opportunities" etc, that are supposed to teach students marketable skills, but the graduate program has no acronym programs because everyone knows the grad students are training for one job only.
During the great renaming, after all the ex-polytechnics in the UK gained university status, changing from X Poly to X City Uni or X Metropolitan Uni, it was always reported that what is now Northumbria University came within touching distance of calling itself the City University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
My medical school organizes its curriculum by organ system. The second-year module covering integument and connective tissue was originally named "Skin, Muscle, Bones, and Joints" until somebody in the administration got wise and re-arranged the words. Of course, we students still call it SMBJ.
Our campus has three different buildings that are referred to by their occupants as 'The BRC'.
At a previous university, I served on a committee whose members took great pleasure in calling it by its acronym - Course Review And Petitions.
One of my colleagues noticed that the acronym for a Student Centered Research University was unfortunate.
And a friend refers to the accreditation process as "being WASCED"
"in danger of adopting an acronym that, when pronounced, suggested an unusual sex act"

Come on now, you can't just leave a hanger like that. Forestry Science: The Next Generation? What?

Just be glad you aren't military. In one school the military sent me to, we were prohibited from pronouncing acronyms; the whole thing had to be spoken. That is, where you would write POAH, that would be spoken "point of adding heat." Similarly, [greek letter xi], spoken "average logarithmic energy decrement per collision," in full, every time.

Make everyone do that every time you talk to them (even if you have to play dumb), and I guarantee they'll get a lot less enthusiastic about acronyms.

Great blog.
At one time there was a new chemistry model named after its key new contribution of a fluctuating charge. The typical variable for charge is Q. Now it just takes a quick web search to find the "fluc-Q" paper.
At my former workplace, certain procedures had their own acronym. For example, flagging a student in the system was known as PERC'd, which isn't too bad. However, there was something that had to do with purchase orders that was known as PORC-ing and the first time I heard my boss ask the admin. assistant if she'd porked the new computer monitors all of us had trouble keeping a straight face.

My PhD was approved by the Board of Graduate Studies (BoGS) - I think it's maybe only in the UK that 'bogs' is slang for toilets? But, yeah, 'I got my letter from the BoGS' or 'you have to go to the BoGS about that'... well, it added some humour to the dark last days of the PhD process.

My fave is still the current drive in the UK for 'Full Economic Costing' of all research grant applications, abbreviation 'FeC', pronouced 'feck'. Which is the way that our neighbours in northern Ireland pronounce the work 'fuck', and has become widely known in England through the wonderful 'Father Ted' comedy series. It's really funny watching besuited and perhaps somewhat insular senior management team repeatedly emphasise the importance of FeC in public meetings.

Yes, I do still have the sense of humour of a six-year-old shouting 'bum' in the playground and then laughing hugely at their own daring. So?
I volunteer with an organization called SAGE. When it started during the 1970's, it stood for Services and Advocacy for Gay Elders. But "gay" came to be seen as too narrow a term. But everyone wanted to keep the catchy acronym. (It makes some people think we're making sausages!) So the organization became Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders!
In my state out high school students' end of grade tests are called SOL's, but Standards of Learning is not what people think when they are told they are SOL (sh** out of luck).
I also once worked at a Learning Assistance Program and we were the LAP of the college, and our students were called LAP students.
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