16 September 2015

ICYMI, acronyms have invaded our lives

By Darren John Angking

Some of us might not realise it, but we are so used to acronyms that we do not pay attention to them anymore. Everyday words like TV (television), SIM (subscriber identification module) cards, and SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving have become so natural that we are oblivious to their true names. Another two mind blowing nouns are LASER (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and RADAR (radio detection and ranging).

Why do we use acronyms? One of the main reasons for acronyms is speed of communication. This is especially useful and apparent in the military context. Imagine a young recruit telling his sergeant the whereabouts of the duty office: “Sergeant, the Command Duty Officer left the Joint Tactical Operations Center for the Forward Operating Base”. Compare that to if he had said, “Sergeant, the CDO left JTOC for the FOB”. When spoken, acronyms can save a couple of seconds, but in written form, acronyms can potentially save  more time in writing the message, sending the message and reading and understanding the message. This principle of time saving in communication is also evident in the corporate world with our use of SOPs (standard operating procedures), AWOL (absent without leave), PH (public holiday), and a plethora of other acronyms.

Another possible reason for acronyms is for branding purposes. When used correctly, acronyms may be able to take on the image of a company or sentiment. A few good examples of these can be found in our government’s efforts to portray a certain image. One that stands out is the Performance Management and Delivery Unit or PEMANDU. The word PEMANDU means “driver” in the Malay language. This carries a positive connotation for a department which oversees our nation’s Transformation Programs. Besides PEMANDU, the government has also done a good job with inserting the 1Malaysia symbolism in a lot of its branding. For example, the Bantuan Rakyat Satu Malaysia which should be written BRSM does not use the word satu in the acronym. Instead it carries the numeral “1” right before the M. This enables the acronym BR1M to be stylised into a logo in which audiences can identify the 1Malaysia branding. It also creates the illusion of the letter “I”, which makes saying the acronym easier, i.e. “BRIM”.

Finally, a third possible reason for the use of acronyms is because it is fashionable. Just like how using specific jargon or slang can include or exclude a person from a social class or subculture, acronyms can be used to similar effect. We can see this in effect in the wonderful world of the interwebs. On social networks you might see hashtags followed by acronyms such as tbt (throwback Thursday) or YOLO (you only live once) to indicate what that particular post is about or to promote an issue. In other spaces you can see acronyms such as TIL (today I learnt), or AFAIK (as far as I know), or FMTRL (for me to read later), or everyone’s favourite: LSHMSFOAIDMT (laughed so hard my sombrero fell off and I dropped my taco). If you do not understand those acronyms, participation in those social networks or websites might feel distant, or other members might identify you as an outsider or newcomer.

The challenge with acronyms on the internet is that there are new ones created every day, and its usage spreads like wildfire. Keeping up with and understanding what each of those mean and how it is used requires one to be quite engrossed in its “society”. However, a word of caution to the uninitiated: be careful of hidden obscenities. A quick trip to Urban Dictionary should be able to help you wade through stfu, ffs, togtfo, and other innocent looking acronyms. For decency’s sake those will not be explained.

So what does this all mean? Is it good to have so many acronyms? Have the true names of some objects and activities been lost forever? Does it matter if it has? There is no real answer to these questions. What is apparent, though, is that acronyms have become part of our language. It helps shape our society through enriching our communication and carrying with it meaning and feelings. Just like any other lexical item in our language, its use is either positive or negative depending on the users.

Darren John Angking is a lecturer with the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at dangking@swinburne.edu.my