I was out with friends at a bar the other night. Please don't look so shocked. I do have friends and I do occasionally socialize. Not often, mind you, and of course I try to avoid such frivolity, but sometimes it just happens. Anyway, in the midst of the jovial conversation, one of my companions made a joke about something taking place at "MSG," and they all laughed. Having only encountered those letters as an initialism for monosodium glutamate (the controversial flavor enhancer that was once frequently added to Chinese food), I asked them to enlighten me so I too could enjoy the joke. "Oh, excuse me," one of them began in exaggerated mock apology, "We know how you get about these things. MSG is Madison Square Garden." And they all got a bonus laugh at the expense of poor, uninformed Mr. C. I, meanwhile, was reminded why I never go out.
You may have noticed I have a lot of complaints. (If you haven't, this must be your first visit to my blog. And so, welcome.) But they're not without cause. For example, there's this excruciating addiction people seem to have to shortening everything. It's faster, they'll tell you, and therefore better. Oh yes, by all means, let's not waste valuable time using whole words. Where's the good in that?
Americans seem peculiarly and mysteriously obsessed with speed. The five-minute oatmeal takes far too long, so there's now three-minute oatmeal. Our awe at being able to communicate round the world via the Internet has been quickly replaced by our frustrated and impatient demands for even faster Internet. And at speeds that are
nothing short of eerie, Amazon Prime can now deliver anything from an abacus to a zither in one day. (Oh yes, I use the service, but that's not to say don't find it deeply, deeply troubling.)
Predictably, this need for speed has seeped into our communications. We've bought into the false narrative that there's something to be gained by finding as many ways as possible to abbreviate. For today, I'll force myself to avoid the territory of the written grunting born in the early days of texting when there were character limits—a caveman-like language of non-English nonsense in which letters and numbers are unworthily deputized to take the place of real words. No . . . I'll avoid that. We all have places to be.
For today, I want to talk about acronyms and initialisms. (Acronyms are words formed from the first letters of each word in a phrase or name, like SNAFU, SCUBA, or the more recently coined SCOTUS. Initialisms are when we just say the letters, like BYOB or PTSD.) It isn't that these things are bad, necessarily. But the pity about them is that with regular use, over time, we sometimes forget what the letters stand for. Certainly, we remember that HQ is short for headquarters, ASAP is "as soon as possible," and TGIF is "Thank God it's Friday." But how many people remember that the unremarkable RSVP stands for the très fancy "Répondez s'il vous plaît," or that the dry HBO stands for the far more evocative Home Box Office? All too few. Have you been to a CVS lately? I'll bet you didn't know you were shopping at a Consumer Value Store. And most have now forgotten that ATM stands for Automated Teller Machine and that PIN stands for Personal Identification Number, which is how we end up with idiotic instructions like "Visit the ATM machine" ("Visit the automated teller machine machine.") and "Input your PIN number" ("Input your personal identification number number.") And so, people are spouting nonsense, all because the manic compulsion to abbreviate has disconnected them from the meanings of their words.
This texting, tweeting generation, of course, has opened the floodgates to all sorts of new initializing, demanding that we master an ever-growing list of stupid letter codes, from the well-known LOL ("laughing out loud," which the writer is hardly ever actually doing) to the one I've just learned while researching this article, AFAIK ("as far as I know"). I'm a frequent visitor (all right, all-too-frequent) to an online site where I play Scrabble games with people all over the country. There, players regularly use the chat feature to type things like, "tyftghf." What? You don't know what that means? Well, obviously, it's "Thank you for the game. Have fun." And this is a Scrabble site—Scrabble—a word game for word lovers! Every time I read that gobbledygook it just breaks my curmudgeonly heart, to the point where I simply refuse to converse with such people. Or else I'll type something along the lines of "rqnwpthd," just to see what happens. These non-words become meaningless piles of letters, mindlessly spewed
without any attached thought. We lose the grace, the elegance, the beautiful communication that real, actual, known English words can provide.
And what do we get in exchange? Speed. How did that become such a prized commodity? What is it we're in such a great hurry to do—more texting and tweeting? I often think life might be lovelier if we started reversing the tide and using all the words for everything, altogether rejecting acronyms and initializing. We may find that we actually do have the time for words. We may even start remembering what we're talking about. Sounds like the beginning of a movement to me. I'm going to head right to my American Telephone & Telegraph phone (assuming the subscriber identification module card is working) and propose the idea to everyone within my zone improvement plan code, offering a Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere package to everyone who joins me in my mission, and we'll laugh out loud as we start making sense again. Who's with me? Let's meet at Madison Square Garden . . . Madison Square Garden . . . . isn't that a beautiful name?