September 09, 2006

Abbreviatory oddities

Orphan abbreviations (including initialisms and acronyms and some things that are a little bit of both) are notable in that they look like abbreviations -- they are spelled with upper-case letters (sometimes mixed with other symbols and some lower-case letters) -- and they originated as abbreviations, but it's now claimed that they no longer stand for some other expression. 

This is a different phenomenon from a much more common case, in which orthographic expressions that were originally abbreviations, of one type or another, have been naturalized as, assimilated as, ordinary words (fully lower-cased, if common nouns, or with initial caps only, if proper nouns), their abbreviatory ancestry now lost to all but experts and etymologists: radar, scuba, modem, and the programming language names Lisp and Algol, for instance. 

In still another set of cases, abbreviatory "readings" are assigned to words that in fact have no such actual history (in acronymic etymythologies like "To Insure Promptness" for tip) or to words that have such a history, but not this one ("Drugs Are Really Evil" for DARE, "Drug Abuse Resistance Education"); these are various types of backronyms.  The novel readings may be simple errors, arising from people's desire to find meaning wherever they can, or deliberate inventions -- for institutional purposes ("Trans World Airline" for TWA, replacing the original "Transcontinental and Western Air"), as bits of language play ("Bill's Attempt to Seize Industry Control" used jocularly for BASIC, "Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code"), or as attempts to achieve a memorable name by coercing an abbreviation: BASIC, for example, and the spectacular short title USA PATRIOT Act (of 10/24/01), whose name is presented as an abbreviation for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism".  In coerced abbreviations, as in the replacements, there's a sense in which the abbreviation comes first, with the "reading" jiggled to fit it.

People have been writing me tons of messages about all three of these phenomena, as well as about garden-variety, unproblematic abbreviations.  This is fascinating stuff, though a bit overwhelming.  Let me stress here that my purpose is only to distinguish between some phenomena, illustrate them, and find suitable terminology for talking about them.  I am NOT proposing to create an encyclopedia of orphans, or (goodness knows) any of the other types. 

That said, the mail contained several especially interesting observations.

From R. Michael Medley, the tale of the orphan acronym NAFSA (pronounced in two syllables), originally abbreviating the "National Association of Foreign Student Advisors".  At some point the members of the organization switched from referring to the people they advised as "foreign students" to referring to them as "international students", and NAFSA ceased to be treated as an abbreviation for anything, but continued to serve as the name of the organization.  Rather than just changing its name to something more appropriate -- "Association of International Educators" was what got chosen -- the organization went instead for the double-barreled "NAFSA: Association of International Educators" (see the website).  In effect, the orphan acronym NAFSA got adopted by the Association of International Educators.  As far as I can tell, the adoptive parent never goes by the initialism AIE  (or an acronymic version pronounced like the exclamation "aiee!"; note that there's a slew of AIEs around the world, from the American Institute of Engineers to the Australian Institute of Energy, but I suspect they're all treated as initialisms).

Meanwhile, Vance Maverick points out that the websites for both SRI and Texas A&M acknowledge the initialistic origins of their names, though they're clear about the current names being just as above.  SGI hasn't gone all the way (yet), since its company fact sheet refers to "SGI, also known as Silicon Graphics, Inc." (though the rest of the website uses "SGI" throughout).

From Victor Steinbok, a cornucopia of orphan-related references, including the case of Crisco, which according to its Wikipedia entry, derived "from the initial sounds of the expression 'crystallized cottonseed oil'".  This is yet a new case, in which some original expression motivates a brief name, but does not actually have currency as a name in its own right.  Think of it as a muse rather than a parent.

Steinbok also asks about Cisco Systems: is Cisco an acronym?  No; as the Wikipedia site explains, it's a clipping of San Francisco.

Finally, the world of names for programming languages, text editors, operating systems, and the like is an abbreviatory morass, with older all-caps names (FORTRAN, BASIC, LISP, COBOL, ALGOL, EMACS, UNIX) alternating in common usage with initial-caps names (Fortran, Basic, Lisp, Cobol, Algol, Emacs, Unix).  In some cases, the all-caps names are now the trademarked versions (UNIX), and the official websites use only these versions.  In other cases, the initial-caps names are standard (Emacs).  In still other cases, the all-caps versions are almost universal (GNU, which, entertainingly, stands for "Gnu's Not Unix").  Few people know the origins of these names, however, or even recognize them as (opaque) abbreviations; probably, many assume that the upper-casing is just a commercial bid for attention.

(Thanks to Cameron Majidi on modem and Adam Roberts on TWA.  The now-standard source for "etymythology" is Larry Horn's 2004 article "Spitten image: Etymythology and fluid dynamics", in American Speech 79.33-58.)

[Update 9/18/06: "Tenser, said the Tensor" writes to point to an entertaining posting on this blog about orphans, under the name "disabbreviation", with still more examples.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 9, 2006 01:43 PM