Cute acronyms, irritating they are

The World Today Published 15 December 2017 Updated 25 January 2019 1 minute READ

A group of French and German scientists have proposed an agency called JEDI, the Joint European Disruptive Initiative. This ought to bring forth a counter-proposal for a campaign against excessively cute acronyms. The Franco-German plan for a European equivalent of DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, might be a good way to promote ‘disruptive’ technology, but it does not need the Star Wars tag to make its case. The European Union already has the ERASMUS programme, a contrived name for a student exchange scheme that supposedly stands for EuRopean (Community) Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. Without becoming unnecessarily Eurosceptic, is this not already a step too far?

It is not as if the Americans are above this sort of thing. DARPA may be simple enough, but it was the Bush administration after 9/11 that gave us the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, or the USA PATRIOT Act.

Of course, it makes sense to check the initials of any new organization and to see if they might be pronounced as a word. Alan Johnson, the former Labour cabinet minister, recalls in his memoir that, when he was shuffled to Trade and Industry Secretary in 2005, it was proposed to change the name of his department. It was to be renamed the Department for Productivity, Energy, Industry and Science. Johnson pointed out to the civil servant who brought the news: ‘This means that we’re the Department for Penis.’ He says he can’t be certain but was pretty sure that the official replied: ‘Yes, Minister.’ The change was dropped, as was a later proposal, when Johnson was Health Secretary, to call an expert panel the Sexual Health Advisory Group.

And some backronyms – acronyms devised to fit a word – are acceptable. No one objects to BASIC computer language (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) .

But then people invent something called BASE jumping, which involves parachuting off Buildings, Antennae, Spans or Earth (cliffs). Or CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart and just happens to sound like ‘capture’. That’s the trouble with humans: some of them try too hard and end up with irritating acronyms.

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