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May 9, 2006

Brand Naming: The Alphabet Soup of Initialisms

Alphabet SoupA in the BBC News described the author’s experience of “drowning in the alphabet soup” of France’s acronyms and abbreviations. I have to grant that it’s by no means intuitively obvious that a K7 is an audio or videocassette, nor that X represents L’Ecole Polytechnique. And I couldn’t tell you what a RIB is, either.

But the British should talk. Anyone moving to England confronts such terms as MOT (Ministry of Transport, but more specifically the inspection a car has to get before it’s allowed on the streets), OAP (old-age pensioner), PTO (“please turn over,” generally at the bottom of a business letter), WC (“water closet,” or toilet, seen on signs pointing to public loos), and QUANGO.

The last stands for Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization, and you can see why they’d want to abbreviate it. My question is, since they’re already separate from the government, what is it they need autonomy - or even quasi-autonomy - from?

And then there are major British corporations like BT (British Telecom) and BA (British Airways). Not to mention, of course, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) itself.

Government agencies in all nations seem to attract a plethora of abbreviations - think IRS, CIA, and FBI. The Greek National Tourist Organization (GNTO in English-language guidebooks) is abbreviated EOT (epsilon omicron taf) in Greek. The Dutch Tourist organization is the VVV.

As for corporations, we’ve blogged about BMW, IKEA, and SAAB.

The 1960s hit musical Hair provided a tribute to American initialisms: “LBJ took the IRT down to 4th Street, USA / When he got there, what did he see? / The youth of America on LSD.”

And that was before e-mail and text messaging, which have created whole rafts of new abbreviations.

My Canadian friends have commented on their nation’s fondness for acronyms - one while applying to renew her SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, pronounced “shirk”) fellowship.

Switching continents again, we have the ANC (African National Congress), SADC (Southern African Development Community, pronounced “sadec”), and ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe Africa National Union Patriotic Front, the ruling party in Zimbabwe).

So far the acronym-search site has collected a mere 289 French entries, with 637 for German, 349 for Hebrew, and 2202 for Spanish (not counting the 1007 for Guatemalan and 404 Mexican entries). These lists are by no means exhaustive, as the site relies on volunteers contributing entries.

They do demonstrate that forming abbreviations and acronyms is as natural to humans as language itself.

The at AbbreviationZ include BYOB, RSVP, IT, AKA, SAT, AARP, and Etc.

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Posted by Diane Prange at May 9, 2006 11:31 AM
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You humble me with you know about this subject and linguistics.

I enjoy your posting the most. And they are a pleasure to read.

I always learn something about language with your articles.

Thank you.

I don't know about the others (except the British ones) but "K7" is pretty easy. The letter "K", which we pronounce "kay", the French pronounce "kah". The French for 7 is "sept", pronounced "sett". So K7 = "kah-sett". And there you have it: K7 = cassette.

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