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September 4, 2007 | Tate Linden
(No, We Still Don't Like Acronyms.)

Why? Because except in rare instances they're forgettable, confusing, costly, and time intensive. ...among other things, of course.

Forgettable because most acronyms (and initialisms) have no connection to the idea behind the letters.

Confusing because if someone wants to get to know the organization or product behind the letters they've got to learn two different names - the abbreviated one and the long, drawn-out one. Additionally, the pronunciation of an acronym or an initialism is often not intuitive.

Consider:
  • ICQ = "I Seek You" (instead of "Ick!")
  • IEEE = "I triple E"
  • IALA = "Eye Allah"
  • LED = "Ell Eee Dee"
  • IUPAC = "Eye You Pack"
  • SQL = "Ess Cue Ell" or "Sequel"
  • FNMA = "Fannie Mae"
Each of these examples follows a different rule for pronunciation. And this list covers less than half of the potential pronunciation issues. It seems to me that taking the extra effort to say your name, then spell your name, then explain that the letter sounds are actually letter sounds and not full words (as in "ICQ") is more trouble than it is worth. Which leads me to...

Costliness... Supporting two unique identities - the short and long version - takes money. It appears in the use of different names for internal and external documentation, or in different logo presentations, or in linear inches when writing job descriptions for publication in the paper, or - relating to the last issue listed - in time spent explaining what the acronym means.

Time is a significant disincentive for the use of acronyms. If the goal is to do something productive with the hours in your day and your staff is forced to expalin the acronym every time they say it to someone new... aren't you losing a bit of money every time conversation is side-tracked? Yes, you could argue that the additional conversation is about your company so it's "all good" but wouldn't you rather have a conversation better targeted to what you want from the person you're talking to? If it takes 15 seconds to clarify your name each time you say it and you say your name to ten new people a day... that's 2.5 minutes a day or 12.5 minutes per week per staff member. Almost an hour a month of lost time multiplied across your entire sales staff.

It seems to me that it is better to have the listener ask a question about what you can do for them or the value of your offerings intead of asking the most basic question (i.e. "Umm... what's that mean?") Acronyms have a way of making people feel stupid - they're the professional version of "AMonkeySaysWhat?" - forcing us to stop the speaker to clarify an issue that the speaker should've addressed or let the speaker go on as we focus on the fact that we have no clue what was just said. There's an old military prank that guys pull on new recruits - commenting that the hardest part of the job is cleaning up after all of the spent B-1RD (pronounced "Bee One Arr Dee") fuel in the hangar. It's a rare recruit that figures it out in the first couple days.

Want a few more reasons?

How about these:
  1. We did fine for centuries without even having a word to describe what an acronym was. It wasn't until the 1940s (shortly after The New Deal) that the mess of long-winded government programs likely forced us to come up with a way to describe the alphabet soup. Do you really want to be associated with annonymous government programs?
  2. Typically you can't trademark your acronym by itself. And you can't prevent others from using the same one that you do. There aren't enough letters in our alphabet to allow every company and association to get their own short acronym reserved all for themselves. So...
  3. You end up sharing your acronym with hundreds our thousands of other entities and no one can ever find you.
Think the big guys are immune? Think again. ABC - an acronym "owned" by the American Broadcasting Company - seems to have a bit of trouble keeping others off of their letters. On the first page of an ABC Google search we find:
  • " yet Another Bittorent Client"
  • Australia's public broadcasting network
  • The national trade association representing merit shop contractors
  • The audit bureau of circulations
  • ...and references to three different branches of the American Broadcasting Company.
If we're generous and we allow a contextualizing term like "towing" to be added to ABC we should be able to find our local tow shop, right?

Nope.

Unless you're fortunate enough to be in Hammond, Indiana. Those guys are easy to find. Most of the other 1.8 million "ABC Towing" hits are for other companies in other cities and states - and are entirely unrelated to the guys in Hammond.

Acronyms, plainly stated, are perhaps the fastest way to become permanently anonymous in business.

That said, there are exceptions. One quick look at FCUK and you'll see there are ways to get attention. But (thankfully?) there can really be only one FCUK. However, I know without even looking that even this name has been copied. I'll give ten to one odds that FUKC and FCKU are both being marketed as copycat brands... (But that is a rant for another day.)

Aww heck... I couldn't resist!
2 Comments
Nancy Friedman September 5, 2007 4:59 PM

Here's a winner: the Bones And Raw Food diet for dogs, touted as "healthy, natural, and nutritional."
Yep, BARF.
www.barfworld.com.

Tate Linden September 13, 2007 8:08 AM

How fun!
Sadly my dog would eat it despite the name. Along with the actual barf that she eats when it is available...