Consider the following passage from a recent article published in The Hindu newspaper of India: “CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat on Monday expressed hope that the AIADMK-Left alliance would ensure success in Tamil Nadu.”
Or this paragraph from Indian Express: “The allegations against Jaitley and Modi came from AAP MLA from Kasturba Nagar, Madan Lal… Reports suggested that Lal was one of the MLAs who would support expelled AAP MLA Vinod Kumar Binny. Along with JD(U) MLA Shoaib Iqbal and Independent MLA Rambir Shokeen, Binny had threatened to pull down the AAP government.”
Or this ditty from India Today: “Final postmortem report from the medical board of the doctors of AIIMS is awaited. This final report will also take toxicology report from CFSL/CBI into consideration… On January 30 at around 5 pm, he was brought dead in AIIMS accordingly a case u/s 302 IPC & 3 of SC/ST Act was registered."
With respect to the first example, CPI(M) refers to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – to distinguish it from the regular Communist Party of India, which is usually labelled as just CPI.
The AIADMK refers to the extravagantly named All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the political party that currently runs the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
In reference to the second example, AAP refers to the Aam Aadmi Party, a new anti-corruption party that swept into power in the capital city of Delhi. MLA means Member of Legislative Assembly – an office that is just below MP (Member of Parliament). JD(U) refers to Janata Dal (United), a center-left Indian political party.
In the incomprehensible third example, AIIMS refers to the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (a group of public medical schools across the country), while CFSL is the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, a branch of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs. Also, CBI stands for the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s principal police investigation agency. The last sentence in that paragraph simply may seem to defy translation – but 302 IPC refers to Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, while SC/ST Act refers to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, a law designed to prevent abuse and mistreatment of lower-caste Indians.
In any case, these three passages underline one of the fundamental realities of Indian media and communications – the obsession with acronyms and abbreviations. For the uninitiated, reading an Indian newspaper, magazine or government publication could become quite daunting.
Of course, such devices are used to save space and time – and they are also widely used in Western media. For example, in the United States, John F. Kennedy has become the iconic “JFK,” while in Europe the notorious Dominique Strauss-Kahn has metamorphosed into the more familiar “DSK.”
Still, in the English-language media of the Indian subcontinent (which also includes Pakistan and Bangladesh) the use of acronyms and abbreviations in communications seems almost pathological. Within India itself, the plethora of political parties, political groups and titles for lawmakers, military personnel and educators has created an immense reservoir of acronyms and abbreviations that boggle the readers’ mind and threaten to drown the meaning behind the text of media pieces. The inundation of so many acronyms likely looks like gobbledygook to non-Indian readers.
Patralekha Chatterjee, a New Delhi-based journalist, admitted that Indian media rely too heavily on the use of acronyms, but explained the realities behind this practice. “Sometimes, it is also because of the constraints of space,” she said in an interview. “Space is at a massive premium because of [advertisements], etc.” In addition, the name of some Indian political parties and luminaries are so long, like the aforementioned All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, that abbreviations become necessary.
Indeed, English may be the lingua franca of Indian media, finance and politics, but it is a second language for hundreds of millions of people who speak hundreds of other different languages and thousands of dialects – rendering the use of an alien tongue a questionable and imperfect attempt to foster a kind of national unity.
But something has gotten lost in the translation.
Chatterjee also noted that most Indian journalists try to squeeze in some context and write the full name of an organization (or political party or branch of government, etc.) at the start of an article and then follow with acronyms. “But it ultimately depends on the readership,” she said. “If the [editorial] desk thinks [that] most of your readers would be familiar with a certain acronym, then it is used. But if you are referring to something which would be unfamiliar to the average reader of the newspaper/magazine, then it is the full name.”
Since Chatterjee writes for the international and national media, she tries to minimize the use of acronyms in her works. “I can imagine all this being extremely confusing to a foreigner or someone who is not familiar with what is going on in India and picks up a newspaper/magazine,” she conceded.
The practice has also become epidemic in the United States. On a blog for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, John McIntyre called for a limitation on the use of abbreviations, amidst concern that their presence may compromise readability. “Professional publications embrace abbreviations and acronyms much more readily as a kind of lodge handshake identifying who is in the club,” McIntyre wrote. “Lawyers and civil servants are particularly addicted to the practice.” McIntyre suggested that his personal preference is to minimize abbreviations and acronyms “because they distract me and quickly convey a leaden bureaucratic tone to articles.”
As in India, documents produced by the U.S. government, medical, military and scientific organizations are typically overwhelmed with acronyms. As a blogger on the Baltimore Sun complained: “As one who has spent many hours editing Defense Department documents, I have seen too many pages reduced to incomprehensible alphabet soup by acronyms. Their use should be minimized; that's not even a question.”
It seems as if we never pass up an opportunity to shorten a word, either by cutting off syllables, which is why the head of a committee is called a chair now, rather than substituting chairperson as a non-sexist alternative to chairman, or by substituting initials for full names and terms, commented Dr. Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and associate ‘chair’ for undergraduate studies at Fordham University in New York. “Sometimes I think us Americans would be happiest if we could only reduce our words down to a series of grunts.”
No less a figure than J.W. “Bill” Marriott, the executive chairman and chairman of the board of the hotel chain Marriott International Inc. (NASDAQ:MAR,) has spoken out against the excessive use of abbreviations. In a witty blog he titled “T.M.A. – Too Many Acronyms!,” Marriott bemoaned the infiltration of acronyms and abbreviations in daily communications. “We have far too many acronyms,” he lamented. “It started with government agencies (GOV), and it has invaded corporate (CORP) headquarters (HQ). Like an invasive species, it’s threatening to choke off innovation.”
As a native of Washington, D.C., he noted, acronyms are part of his very blood. “There’s DC [District of Columbia], DOD [Department of Defense], DOT [Department of Transportation] and DOJ [Department of Justice],” he quipped. “Don’t confuse the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] with the FEC [Federal Election Commission] or the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and FDA [Food & Drug Administration]. We all know the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], NIH [National Institutes of Health] and EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. In the corporate world, we tremble when we hear SEC [U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission], IRS [Internal Revenue Service] or FTC [Federal Trade Commission].”
Marriott noted that the three-letter acronyms seem to have a “prestige and status” over the four- or five-letter ones, citing that the longer acronym usually salutes the shorter one – i.e., NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] to DOT or DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]to DOD. “I’ll leave you with my favorite acronym: STML – short-term memory loss,” Marriott concluded. “Let’s forget these useless acronyms. Chances are we already have. We don’t understand them.”
Now the emergence (and seeming omnipresence) of social media will likely give acronyms an even higher place in our daly lives – and that’s nothing to LOL about.
But Strate cautions than acronyms have a long history and are likely to remain as long as humans communicate.
“Abbreviations and acronyms are an unintended consequences of the invention of the alphabet, and have their origins in antiquity,” he noted. “When words could only be written out by hand, or even more laboriously chiseled out of stone, abbreviations were welcome, sometimes necessary to make words fit into a limited space, and had the added utility of functioning as icons for the illiterate, who could recognize the look of the symbols and recall their meaning without actually reading, that is sounding out, the letters.”
Still, as a scholar and one who wishes to preserve the beauty of language, Strate laments: “Our overuse of abbreviations and acronyms is one of several facets of the degraded form of discourse that constitutes communication in the 21st century.”