I hesitate; she repeats the letters: R-O-E. My brain in overdrive, I shout, Return on equity reached on error rules of engagement. Gasping, I sit back and close my eyes. A telling pause precedes the doctor’s devastating pronouncement: You have AOS.

AOS: Acronym Overload Syndrome. Struggling to assimilate this unwelcome news, I mentally review the case history I have presented to my FP (family practitioner).

It had all started innocently enough. Effortlessly, thoughtlessly, I picked up common workplace lingo: FIFO (first in, first out, for inventory management); QC (quality control); and all the CEOs, COOs and CIOs (Chief Executive, Operating and Information Officers) anyone could want.

Twenty years ago I began helping companies respond to RFPs (Requests for Proposals). I was soon at ground zero of exposure to government acronyms: department names (TBS: Treasury Board Secretariat), position titles (ADM: Assistant Deputy Minister), program names (CAIS: Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization), and processes (MAF: Management Accountability Framework).

I soon spoke not in tongues but in alphabet soup about technical and management topics: MTBF (mean time between failures); PM and CM (preventive and corrective maintenance); PMO (Project Management Office); OJT (on-the-job training); and LOE (level of effort), measured, naturally, in FTEs (full-time equivalents). These and more slid smoothly from my lips and my keyboard. Gaining experience, I moved into training neophytes in the seemingly obvious but oft-ignored principle of RFP response: RTQ/ATQ (read the question, answer the question).

Within this environment, my transformation was unremarkable; a business trip to Anchorage changed the environment. The team assembled at the appointed hour to reach a Cajun restaurant 45 minutes outside town. Our host was likewise punctual, driving a recreational vehicle retrieved from winter storage.

As this top-heavy conveyance lurched alongside the twisty inlet, our unspoken question became whispered conversation: Why had he retrieved this eminently unsuitable vehicle from winter storage?

Eureka. In setting a time for our hotel ‘rendezvous’, we had unthinkingly used a standard Canadian military acronym: RV. Our American host, puzzled but game, had done his best to oblige with his own RV.

That was my first inkling of TAL (trouble in acronym-land) but multiple expansions for acronyms soon became the puzzling norm. SME: ‘subject matter expert’ or ‘small and medium enterprises’? NWS: North Warning System (a network of Arctic radar sites), or an assessment that a mineral deposit was ‘not worth…’, well, you know? NSA: National Security Agency or ‘nil situational awareness’ — inattention to one’s surroundings exemplified by those blocking aisles and sidewalks, blissfully oblivious? And, of course, the three-for-one mapping that had precipitated my diagnostically useful meltdown: ROE’s financial, baseball and military applications.

As the diagnosis sinks in, I open my eyes to find the doctor regarding me with empathy born of her own battle not just with disease but its acronymized face: HIV, SARS, H1N1.

How had acronyms gotten the jump on us? In our undergraduate days we felt assaulted by endlessly proliferating numbers: telephone, bank account, identification, licenses. Clearly, numbers were on the march, but no one thought much about capital letters. Thirty-five years later, however, we are near to swamped.

Twice- and thrice-used acronyms are common: BW is both ‘bandwidth’ and ‘biological warfare’; ILS means ‘instrument landing system’, ‘integrated logistics support’, and ‘integrated logic simulator’. In most cases, context is our translation salvation: it’s obvious whether NA means North America or Network Administrator. But our confusion between ‘not applicable’ and ‘not available’ illustrates that clarity can be collateral damage in the undeclared war on full expression.

And us – are we lambs to this slaughter or the abattoir operators? Cavalierly chopping words apart, we form ESP from ‘extrasensory perception’, IUD from ‘intrauterine device’. Careless of consistency, we allow DND (Department of National Defence) to jettison its preposition, but reverse ground for the GOC (Government of Canada). Preferring TLAs (three-letter acronyms) reflects something deep in the human psyche.

Of more psychological interest than acronyms’ precise form, however, is how readily we take to them, how easily we are seduced by the allure of convenience, the thrill of being in the know.

Using acronyms signals that we belong — to an organization, profession, or demographic group. They take jargon one crucial step further, transforming already obscure conversation between experts into arcane exchanges between adepts. As acronyms cause confusion externally, so they build rapport internally, showing others that we’ve put in our time.

Using acronyms is also easy: they make a big mouthful chewable. Who uses ‘global positioning system’ when GPS lies so readily to hand? If we were all IT (information technology) wonks, wouldn’t we, too, succumb to the temptation to use ATM for ‘asynchronous transfer mode’, and hang the overlap with the cash machine? And how can we not be thankful that someone converted ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’ into the tidy ‘laser’?

Yet the pursuit of convenience misleads us: BTW (by the way), IAW (in accordance with), and IVO (in view of) have all been observed in the wild. There can be no compelling reason to turn these phrases into acronyms.

Or can there? Beset by complexities — cultural, technological, organizational, relational — we first tolerate, then expect, and finally need complicated expressions even for simple realities. Bombs become ‘explosive devices’; walking becomes ‘proceeding by foot’. Yesterday’s ‘experts’ become today’s ‘subject matter experts’.

Yet what is an expert expert in, after all, if not some subject? Facing expression inflation we reach for help, but in the wrong direction, settling for compression instead of holding out for simplification. And so subject matter experts become SMEs; home-made bombs, now ‘improvised explosive devices’, become IEDs. By converting long-winded expressions into bite-sized acronyms we perversely foster complexity, instead of pursuing simpler, clearer language.

There is no cure for AOS but I hear that the FIP (Federal Identification Program) is on the case, rationalizing and perfecting acronyms. Somehow, my head still hurts.

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11 Responses to R-O-E

  1. Marion says:

    Acronym or initialism?
    An initialism is when we take the first letter of a phrase and spell it out – as in AOS and RFP. An acronym is an initialism that can be pronounced as a new word – SCUBA, RADAR, NASA.
    I’m for and against acronyms and initialisms; they’re very convenient in the right context – when everyone knows which SME is in the house; but they do tend to exclude in a cliquish sort of way: “You don’t know what ‘RBAC is? Oh, that’s right, you’re new here”.
    I made up my own acronym, at least I think I did, when texting with my son. BION – believe it or not. If anyone thought of it before me, IDWTK (I don’t want to know).

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Well, you are the first to claim BION to my knowledge and, IMHO, likely the perpetrator…err…creator (it’s a gray area in this case). I think acronyms/initialisms are a great example of reverse synergy. Some are good; more are not better.

  2. Sandy says:

    I love it and was there for much of it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      There for it? You were the source of much of it, you and your military cohort! Glad you’re still there….

  3. Carla says:

    BION, you forgot the ‘f’ in a few of your acronyms Isabel!! You know which ones… I was waiting for this post and it exceeded my expectations – thank-you for my Monday morning entertainment!!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Yes, I decided to do the PG version (as it were). Yikes – they just don’t quit, do they?

  4. kate says:

    I’m with you Isabel!
    I was in acronym overload at my government workplace for at least the first year. I find, surprisingly often, that when I ask a coworker what something stands for, they don’t know!!!
    Communication? I think not.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Yes, there could be a few things going on there – not wanting to admit you don’t know, and not caring enough to find out! But it could also be akin, I think, to seeing a word you don’t know in text – if you get the gist, you just slide over the strangeness without enquiring further.

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        An email contribution from ‘Jim’:

        I blame the military (or at least the military mind) for things like DMZ in Korea. I sat in a meeting the other night where the person reported that our application was actually getting somewhere in the provincial government; the speaker worked for an MLA who had managed to get her referred from the CAs to the LAs to the AAs and even to the ADM… We all burst into laughter…

        One time, when I was doing a language workshop for what was then Northern Telecom, I criticized them for using so many TWAs in their sample texts.
        “But we all know what they mean!” they protested.
        It was a two-day workshop. So that night, I sifted all the acronyms out of some 30 sample texts, and listed them. Then I used the list as a test the next day. No one got more than 50% right. No one.

        I think of these things as a means of exclusion. It’s like buying a Bentley — if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. Ditto with TWAs — if you have to ask the meaning, you don’t belong.

        • Mike says:

          To Jim’s email, OK, you got me; what’s a TWA? It used to be Trans World Airways (or Airlines). I suspect it’s Two Word Acrynoms, but since the term wasn’t defined in his message (shame on him), some of us are left in the dark and spending far more precious time trying to figure it out than it would have been to type it out in the first place. Ah, I think this was the objective of the article in the first place. Some us are slower than others.

          IMHO, two word acronyms are worse than three (or four). There usually are far more plausible possibilities despite there only being two letters. TAI (think about it). TTFN (no ambiguity there).

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            This isn’t Jim, but I’m pretty sure that TWA means three-word acronyms (also referred to as TLAs, for three-letter acronyms) – the norm, to the extent there is one. Let’s say, the modal category.

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