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Acronym Addicts

Mark Edwards

Last week I was speaking with an associate about various companies with which we were currently doing business. In this discussion he made the comment that one of them was an ASP. In my field of software programming, ASP is a Microsoft web-server programming language otherwise known as Active Server Pages. I was puzzled to think why this business would be referred to as a Microsoft programming language. When I asked what an ASP was he answered that it was an Application Service Provider.

This highlights a problems with three letter acronyms. There are not many of them available. There can only be a total of 17,576 unique three letter acronyms (26 x 26 x 26). It is unlikely that all of them are used. For instance, I cannot think of anything useful I often say that I would abreviate to XXZ. This being the case, there are probably only a few thousand useful three letter acronyms and ASP is not the only one that has more than one meaning.

This is a pretty important point to remember in making client presentations. In my field, my familiar set of software and programming three letter acronyms might convey a completely different set of meanings if I was speaking with a financial planner or accountant for instance. The reverse is also the case. For financial planners the problem is exacerbated by the fact that you are more likely to be presenting to a room full of people from many professions. There are many three letter acronyms that convey strange meanings when used in a diverse group.

For example:

CAM to an engineer means Computer Aided Manufacturing

CAM to a doctor might mean Complementary and Alternative Medicine

It could also be an abbreviation for camera as in Web-CAM

BDM might mean Business Development Manager

or Births Deaths and Marriages

or The Development Bank of Mali! (Banque de Développement du Mali)

Even four letter acronyms suffer the same problem. Here is one I came across recently:

EULA to a doctor means Examination Under Local Anaesthetic

EULA in online parlance means Electronic User License Agreement

Assuming your audience understands your acronyms or interprets them in the same way as you is risky.

Those of you who read Scott Adams cartoons regularly will know Dilbert's pointy-haired boss loves using three letter acronyms and buzzwords in an attempt to bamboozle and impress his subordinates when in fact he has little understanding of their meaning and manages to make himself look foolish as a result. I think we have all met our own version of the pointy-haired boss at one time or another.

I was once in a meeting with such an individual who spoke in sentences which seemed to consist mostly of acronyms. It was very difficult to extract much meaning from what he was saying. At one point he asked another consultant in the room what he thought about using a "DXF". That person answered him by saying "Oh, that's just another TLA, I think we have enough of those here." The acronym addict was like a fish out of water trying to work out what a TLA was. He was acutely embarrassed by not knowing what this industry term meant. Eventually the consultant put him out of his misery by saying "A TLA is a Three Letter Acronym."

This served as a salutary lesson to me that if you use acronyms in an attempt to impress and bamboozle people be careful you don't get hoist by your own petard!

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