Sunday, December 02, 2007


ARRAPEL (A Reflection Regarding Acronymial Proliferation in the English Language)

Acronym: n. word formed from the first initials of several words (e.g. NASA)

I recently read Stephen Lewis’s Race Against Time, (See ) and was highly impressed by the fervour with which he advocates for the Africans suffering from the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping across that continent. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Lewis worked for quite a few years with the United Nations, and the UN with its many departments and sub-departments is a breeding ground for acronyms, those ubiquitous stand-ins for names-of-more-than-one word. He was with UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) and then later with UNAIDS (United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS). AIDS, of course, is itself an acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Here are some other acronyms that float around the UN and other international circles:

WHOWorld Health Organization. This one has potential for an Abbott and Costello parody, i.e. Abbott: “I work for the World Health Organization.” Costello: “You work for who?” Abbott: “That’s right.”

PEPFAR – President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief. This one has the fortunate outcome of exuding energy; both “pep” and “far” are complimentary to the acronym’s original, although the “far” part could be cynically said to suggest that the president would rather fight AIDS abroad than at home.

SAP – Structural Adjustment Program. This is one of those acronyms that has a homonym which is not complimentary to its original.

NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization. Pronounced Naytoe, pretty much everyone knows the acronym while few North Americans know what it actually does. But then, NATO is never sure either what it ought to be and do.

CIDA – Canadian International Development Agency. Lewis says Canada’s record in foreign aid is abysmal. The acronym is nice, though, suggesting “see” as if to say that we are watching the world, or “seed” as if we were growing something. Our aid program is withering on the vine, however, and most Canadians don’t “see” that. Duh.

UNIFEM – United Nations Development Fund for Women. Now where did they get that? The acronym is supposed to be made up of the initials of the organization. Letting “fem” stand in for women, we still have to wonder where the “I” comes from? I suppose UNDFW is simply unpronounceable.

Sometimes the name of an organization includes only consonant initials, as in Prairie Spirit School Division. The rule of thumb in such acronyms is that you supply the vowels where they would logically fit. I live in the PSSD and am not particularly enthused about the acronym resulting from “voweling” that organizational abbreviation. An entity like Dominion Rehabilitation Program would become DRP, but the acronym could be pronounced “DRIP” or “DORP,” neither of which has a classical ring to it.

Sometimes the acronym can speak ironically about its original. United Nations Food Emergency Directorate simply won’t ever exist. UNFED would simply be too appropriate! While I was an MCC (Mennonite Central Committee – See below) administrator in Europe, I was present at the formation of a group that would spearhead joint church building efforts in Portugal. When they decided to call themselves the Portugal Interest Group, I suggested that they rethink that. A colleague who liked irony spoke in favour of keeping it; he thought it would be neat to say—whenever a question arose on the work in that particular sphere—“Just ask the PIG!”

But in that vein, the acronyms that would be created by the Canadian Organization of Women, or Saskatchewan Organization of Women, quite a bit less than helpful, knowing the ribald humour that men in this country seem to prefer.

Of course, many acronyms don’t read like words at all. Saskatchewan Government Telephones has always been “S-G-T.” Even adding a vowel to that combination of consonants doesn’t seem to work: “SGIT?” “SGET?” Likewise, Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway will do doubt remain “C-N-R” and “C-P-R.”

Probably the most frequently used acronym in my daily life is MCC (Mennonite Central Committee). In fact, the acronym has become its name, as is the case with, say, CBC or DVD. That is, of course, fortunate. Mennonite Central Committee sounds like a branch of the Communist Party, and I don’t understand how the spin doctors and PR people haven’t cottoned on to that a long time ago and campaigned for a better name. But then, we Mennonites aren’t very creative in that department: Mennonite Disaster Service sounds like we service disaster, when we really purport to mitigate its effects. MDS should really be MDMS, Mennonite Disaster Mitigation Service. Also, we now have MCC—Mennonite Central Committee—and MCC—Mennonite Church Canada. With the two organizations being part of one family of Christian churches, the misconstruing of intent is a daily phenomenon, at least in my world. So, MCC (the relief organization), you are now CCM: Committee of Centrist Mennonites. (Or is a CCM still a bicycle?)

I am in search of the perfect acronym. The “word” derived from the initials of the organization would be so appropriate that were I to come across it in Lewis, I wouldn’t have to flip to the glossary to get the drift of the sentence at all.

Please send in your contributions.

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