When the World Health Organization (WHO) began naming emerging variants of the coronavirus, officials turned to the Greek alphabet to make it easier for the public to understand the evolution: alpha, beta, gamma, delta and so on. We skipped nu, perhaps because the public wasn’t in the mood for something new.
The letter after that was even more complicated: xi, a name that in its transliteration, though not its pronunciation, happens to belong to the leader of China, Xi Jinping. So, WHO skipped both and named the new variant omicron.
These days we are lost in a sea of acronyms and abbreviations. We are awash in terms such as TTYL (talk to you later), IDK (I don’t know), TBH (to be honest) and LOL, which does NOT mean “lots of love” but rather “laugh out loud.”
TBF (to be fair), abbreviations and acronyms have always existed, but social media has put them on steroids. For example, 30 years ago things needed to get done by COB (close of business). With the advent of social media and 24-hour news cycles, things now have to be done EOD (by the end of the day). Soon it may be by EOM (end of minute).
Everything is abbreviated in Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia). I worked at the WH (White House), specifically on the NSC, which is the National Security Council, and later worked at DoS — the Department of State, where specifically I worked in “R,” the abbreviation for the Office of Public Diplomacy. Of course, we all worked for POTUS — the president of the United States.
Where do these terms come from?
Many of our shortened phrases come from the military, with the most acronyms residing at “DOD” also known as the Department of Defense, or the Pentagon. It’s serious business. Common expressions such as MIA (missing in action) or AWOL (absent without leave) to point out who is missing from a meeting are far more serious than the utilization of these expressions suggest. We are still accounting for soldiers missing in action during the Vietnam War. As of May 2020, 1,587 American service members were still missing in Southeast Asia. We even have a holiday to recognize those missing from wartime or still held as prisoners.
The central social question of our modern-day discourse should be: Do all these abbreviations help us or hurt us?
Abbreviations have long been thought to saddle a reader with too much responsibility — the chore of deciphering the meaning of words that could simply have been spelled out. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) publication manual of 2009 suggested that we “maximize clarity" by using "abbreviations sparingly” to avoid alienating our audiences.
Educationally, we might be devolving from sentence structure to indecipherable emotions such as OMG (I’m sure you know this one). Clearly, we are less and less reliant on an old-fashioned “period” at the end of a sentence (.)
Culturally, abbreviations in modern America are now employed for complex sociological phenomena such as critical race theory (CRT). Critical race theory began in law schools in the late 1970s to explain why huge racial inequalities remained in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other landmark anti-discrimination measures. It has now morphed into a huge political battle dividing the GOP (Grand Old Party or Republican Party) and the Democratic Party. But not everyone knows what CRT stands for and yet many still argue about it.
America is not alone in its word battles.
Italy is going through similar struggles. Recently Italian President Sergio Mattarella denounced the “limitless use of acronyms” in the country, drawing a round of applause from his audience. His target was the widely discussed and hard to pronounce PNRR, which stands for the National Plan for Recovery and Resilience — the EU (European Union)-backed fund to revive its battered economy. He wondered aloud if any voters understood it.
In France, new proposed dictionary entries have sparked debates over non-binary pronouns. That opens up another major source of friction worldwide as language adjusts to gender re-classification and new definitions of ourselves.
Given the borderless world of language and the preponderance of social media, new acronyms will keep popping up. Thankfully, Google and other search engines help keep us up to date on what’s popular and how to figure out the meaning of new abbreviations. For November, among the most highly utilized new acronyms are SMH (shaking my head) and GOAT (greatest of all time), with a usage surge of 300 percent in the past year.
At the end of the day, human beings must adapt or die. To grow and to change requires being open to new things even if initially we don’t know what these things mean. But here is something to celebrate. Merriam-Webster’s 2021 word of the year is “vaccine.” That is not an acronym.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.