Acronym Soup

Acronym SoupI don’t like acronyms because they get in the way of clear communication. Unfortunately, I work in an industry that loves them. Even my best marketers have the irresistible urge to turn every project, every product, and every position into an acronym.

There are so many acronyms that no one can keep them straight. Here at work we used to have an internal portal page that listed popular acronyms but the authors stopped updating the page a few years ago when it became a full-time job.

As an example of the confusion, which of the following does BPM stand for?

  • Business performance management
  • Business process management
  • Business policy management

If you’re a musician, you might have been thinking beats per minute.

The rise of social media has exacerbated this problem. Instant messaging, texting, and 140-characters tweets all place a premium on space. Lol, ttfn, brb are just a few abbreviations which have skyrocketed in use over the last few years. There’s even a debate on what the abbreviation for social media should be. We are drowning in acronym soup.

Over time, some acronyms have entered the national consciousness, obscuring the original meaning. NASA and IBM come to mind. Sonar is now a recognized word. The military term fubar (often mistakenly spelled foobar by computer types) might have a legitimate case. In my industry, ERP might qualify while PLM and SCM probably don’t.

However, unless a phrase appears repeatedly in written text, an acronym is usually more confusing to a reader than spelling it out. My rule of thumb is that an acronym should appear at least three times in one page to be justified.

While I am willing to be a little lenient in written text, I’m much more vigilant when it comes to the spoken word. Readers can return to a specific section of text if they are confused; there’s no rewind in live speech. Anderson Cooper was probably trying to be both ironic and hip when he asked “WTF, B.O.B.?” commenting on rapper B.O.B.’s singing to passengers over a plane’s public address system. The rest of us can’t pull this off.  Miller Beer has even parodied this trend:

BTW, most of the examples above aren’t even really acronyms. Acronyms are pronounceable like NASA or sonar. Simple letter abbreviations are called initialisms.

Are you ROTFL yet?

Note: Source of the acronym soup image is unknown.

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8 Responses to Acronym Soup

  1. Stephen March 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Totally rotfl. I’ve been telling people ‘I hate acronyms’. (Guess i could have stated initialisms too). I was trying to study new software releases and I couldn’t follow anything! The authors did not write out the meaning. 🙁 I think everyone should write out the words… all the time. Acronyms (and initialisms) seem to benefit the author rather than the person to whom they want to convey something. ie a shortcut in writing that wastes time of the reader.

    • Jonathan March 16, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

      I like this: ‘acronyms make things easier for the writer but harder for the reader’. In performance management lingo, we would say that this was an internal perspective, rather than the customer perspective.

  2. Redge March 14, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

    I know of a company that had a web page that defined all the acronyms of the day – even the management couldn’t keep up with all of them.

    I think acronyms have their place but they at least need to be qualified before they appear independently. For example, “I’m rolling on the floor laughing (rotfl).” If rotfl appears later in the text, we understand it’s meaning. To simply use “rotfl” otherwise is indeed confusing.

    Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) can be very cumbersome to write out every time it appears. I think the acronym or “initialism” has it’s place when used in the right context.

    The video really drove the point home as well. Great post.

  3. Henrik March 15, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    Personally working closely with a analytical team I tend to use abbreviations frequently, in written text. I think the video pretty much sums up my feelings by acronyms in the spoken word. Just don´t use them, please!

    • Jonathan March 16, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

      Thanks Henrik. What did you think of my rule to only use acronyms in written text if they appear three times on one page?

  4. TimF June 6, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

    It never ends in the computer industry. SCSI is Small Computer System Interface. But now we nest that to SAS – Serial Attached Small Computer System Interface.

    Our rule for documentation is to spell it out the first time it’s used, followed by the parenthesized acronym. After that, use the acronym.


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