Acronym soup

Mbabane, Swaziland | 30 April 2014
Bill Snaddon

The other day I heard someone speak an entire sentence using acronyms. It was as if listening to a foreign language.
In fact, if you put all the acronyms that are in common usage into a book – an ‘acronym dictionary’, if you will – you would’ve invented a new language.
The dictionary, true to be form, would be known by its own acronym, ADOMACALT – or in its long form: Acronym Dictionary of Modern and Confusing and Long Terms.
Over time, after it enters the public consciousness, it would be pronounced as ‘Ado-ma-cult’.
In my panicked state after hearing that acronym-filled sentence – panicked because I had little clue what was being conveyed – I was worried I was the only one who didn’t understand what was being said.
It was like I had walked into a school exam room and then realised I’d forgotten to study. Not a pleasant feeling.
To be sure I wasn’t the only one bamboozled by this avalanche of acronym-laced letters, I sneaked a quick look around the room.
As it happened, it was clear by the expressions on people’s faces that I wasn’t the only one a little confused.
Almost every day I stumble across a new acronym – usually the shortened name for an NGO or a union, sometimes a government department or parastatal. (Is it just me or is ‘parastatal’ a funny word?)
I put it to you that there are so many acronyms these days that they have stopped serving their purpose.
According to my understanding, acronyms should be used to shorten long titles into a more digestible form. And for something to digest, your stomach must understand what it is, otherwise your acronym soup might end up all over the living room floor.
I mean, I might be a bit slower than the average joe – well that’s what my brother thinks – but it seems these acronyms are getting longer and longer.
I read a book recently that got me thinking about these acronyms.
It was written by a soldier who had spent time living and working in Afghanistan.
Naturally enough, the soldier had to deal with a lot of military jargon and, of course, countless long and confusing acronyms.
Instead of throwing the jargon and acronyms down the reader’s throat, he gently introduced the reader to these confusing terms and acronyms.
In other words, he had the reader in mind when he was writing. He didn’t assume the reader knew what he was talking about. The writer also took care not to over-explain or patronise.
He turned a complex story into an enjoyable read. He managed to describe the complicated context of war-torn Afghanistan in a way that an everyday reader can understand.
And he didn’t dumb-down his story. By using short and snappy words (i.e. not jargon) and writing in a more conversational style, he invites more readers into his world – readers of many abilities.
If anything, by writing in simpler terms he smartened-up his writing.
But it was the clever way he explained the acronyms that especially caught my eye.
Whenever a new acronym was mentioned he took time to make sure the reader knew what that acronym meant. When he had explained it, usually by telling a short and entertaining story, he could then use the acronym throughout the rest of the book knowing the reader knew what it meant.
Now I know not all NGO and government reports can be written in short and snappy sentences. But if their worthy messages are to reach the intended target – the people – perhaps a more digestible form of language might help keep the acronym soup down.

This column was published in the Times of Swaziland on 30 April 2014

#20_Acronym Soup_30 Apr 2014
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