Column: Try reading this R.C. column ASAP, PDQ
WORTHINGTON -- I am having more trouble reading these days. If you are having trouble reading as well, it's no wonder. I am paging through a copy of a Sunday paper and a weekly magazine. Look what I'm coming up with:
HIV, DNA, MLB, ERA, IRA, WPO, CST, POW, IRS, MPH, DVD, CEO, VIP, NBA, ACT, RAM, DNR, BSA, FSB, RVC, DSL.
I don't read any longer. I translate. "Let's see -- DNA -- well, I don't know what DNA means but it has to do with genes and acid and genetics ... That's good enough ... What's the next abbreviation? DVD. DVD is a movie. I can play a DVD. That's what they call it; playing a DVD ..."
We in the USA are shaping a language that is as difficult to read as Chinese. Almost nothing gets spelled out any longer. Some people blame FDR and the early New Dealers. Surely someone should be blamed, and the New Dealers are likely suspects. They favored three-letter short forms: WPA, PWA, CCC, REA, NYA, SSA, AAA, FHA, FSA.
But this isn't confined to government. Before FDR we had NBC, CBS, IBM, MGM, GMC.
You notice that I have confined myself to three-letter abbreviations. This is all I can handle. There is a similar collection of two-letter abbreviations (TLAs). FE: UA, UN, CD, HQ, EM, ER, DQ, GQ, NG, PO, WC, FB, FU. There also is a batch of four-letter substitutes for words. USPS, AAMP, MADD, FAAQ, FDIC, LCMS, ELCA, FEMA, NASA, USAF.
WGOH? (What's Going On Here?)
I know some of this has to do with journalists. I know full well journalists sometimes are working under deadlines. They believe they don't have time to spell things out. I also know spelling things out is sometimes tedious: p-r-i-s-o-n-e-r-o-f-w-a-r. Headline writers contribute to the tangle. F-a-r-m-B-u-r-e-a-u doesn't fit in the space available, but FB does.
Abbreviations also have become a way of identifying ourselves as an insider, or as someone in the know. The visitor to Hollywood says, "Excuse me -- can you tell me where Metro Goldwyn Mayor Studios are located?" The insider replies with a wink, "MGM is two blocks straight ahead." Or, a visitor to Houston: "Can you tell me where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is located?" A wink once again: "NASA is just one mile down the road."
I am thankful it was not always this way. It was not. In the beginning English speakers said Knife, for example, when they could have said Tabletop Slicing Device. TSD. They said Fork when they could have said Countertop Piercing Implement. CPI. They called a spade a spade, not a Sod Turning Tool. STT. Early English speakers were inclined to go with HRH, His Royal Highness, but OED held with The King.
Politicians have made their short-form contributions, in collaboration with headline writers. It is hard to fit F-r-a-n-k-l-i-n-R-o-o-s-e-v-e-l-t into a headline. Much harder than working with John Adams or James Polk. Hence FDR. This was a familiarity other politicians dreamed of -- and headline writers were eager to help those political dreams come true: JFK, LBJ, HHH.
By now I believe there are people hired just to bring together three-word descriptions of new products and to hang an abbreviation on them. Well -- Automated Teller Machine. ATM. We could do as well with Automated Teller or Teller Machine. AT or TM. We didn't need a full description, but we got it. I expect banks to begin introducing HTAs -- Human Teller Assistants. Bank CEOs and HTAs work with CDs and IRAs. I think they are still going with Safety Deposit Boxes. I haven't heard of SDBs.
Back to those DVDs. They are like the ATMs, except that DVDs aren't really even an abbreviation. The manual says a DVD is an Optical Disc Storage Format. Never mind that but, DVD aside, we could get along with a Video Disk (or Disc), or a Disk Video. Manufacturers went with DVD because this is the way things are done these days.
Whatever. I find the daily news is harder to read. I am all right with the MLB, the ERAs, the RBIs, the BAs. I suppose I am used to those. NFL and TDs. My difficulty is with STR, CFO. ETC.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.