The T-shirt raises eyebrows and gets a few laughs. But it conveys a terrible truth. Acronym abuse is the scourge of modern communication. Not as dangerous or insidious perhaps as other forms of misbehaviour. But acronyms in the wrong hands eat away at all that makes us civilised. Take SOCRATES, a word that once conjured up images of Greek philosophers earnestly debating the meaning of life. It’s now been drafted by the US military to denote Special Operations Command Research, Analysis and Threat Evaluation System!
Even those conscious of the dangers of ‘acronymitis’ make excuses. A 2011 report on Australia’s aid to Indonesia noted:
‘Every attempt has been made to reduce the use of acronyms in this report. Unfortunately the development industry suffers from a surfeit of acronyms, mostly unnecessary. The author apologises for any gratuitous acronym usage that has unwittingly crept into the report.’
Sorry. If ‘every attempt’ had in fact been made there’d be no ‘gratuitous acronym usage’.
But it’s not all about despair and excuses. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra now runs an annual Acronym Free Day during which staff try to go for 24 hours without uttering a single acronym. Those who are caught out (probably most staff) pay a small fine to charity.
It’s a good start but much more can be done. Government departments are the refuge of chronic acronyms abusers. Why not make acronym reduction an element in the performance targets for all agencies? Bonuses should be based not only on making Australia and the world a better place but on acronym reduction. Annual Reports should list those acronyms which have been decommissioned.
It’s a mammoth task. It will need commitment and resources. Perhaps also a new government hotline to comfort those suffering acronym withdrawal syndrome, and to distribute free T-shirts.