Can we just spell it out? Photo by Mickey Conlon

Abbreviation falls short. Pls. read. Thx.

By 
  • April 28, 2022

For us who have undertaken the toil of abbreviating, it is no light matter.

- 2 Maccabees 2:26

Today’s social media world has made abbreviations seem more ubiquitous than ever.

The reality, of course, is that the practice has been with us from the earliest of times. Maccabees directly references the practice in the work that scribes must undertake to synthesize the teachings of Jason of Cyrene: “all this, which has been set forth … in five volumes, we shall attempt to condense into a single book” (2 Maccabees 2: 24).

Abbreviations can be found in Ancient Greece and on monuments from the earliest days in Roman history. They appeared carved in ancient Egyptian structures and in scrolls and manuscripts throughout the ages, though abbreviation isn’t confined to ancient times.

During World War II, for example, letter writing was encouraged to boost morale, and as such over a billion letters were generated during the war. However, given the strict rules governing the use of abbreviations, and the fact letters were read by censors to ensure state secrets were not shared, soldiers and their loved ones developed extensive, creative codes to communicate feelings from the benign to the saucy. A letter could be sealed with  SWAK or include seemingly random OOLAAKOEW. The recipient would know the letter was Sealed With A Kiss and that Oceans Of Love And A Kiss On Every Wave was headed their way. A letter bearing CHINA was code for ‘Come Home I’m Naked Already,’ an early form of sexting perhaps.

The military had larger fish to fry, and its coded language and abbreviations are not just legion, but continue in civilian life as well. A SNAFU is a well-known, often ironic commentary, on a disintegrating or badly planned situation: Situation Normal All Fouled Up. The DOD or XO are used regularly IRL (Department of Defence, Executive Officer and In Real Life).

The contemporary equivalent, of course, is texting. It has its own world of cleverly abbreviated codes and signs, developed, as in the days of the telegraph, with economy in mind, but also, as with lovers during WWII, code and secrecy the key. When I overhear a conversation between my children and their friends that is filled with abbreviated slang, I marvel at the cleverness and practicality of their coded words, which serve brevity and the need for exclusivity and code.

I’m reminded every generation creates its own lingua franca separate from the establishment world of parents and teachers. Recently, however, I read an article by Jill Stoner titled “Against Acronyms” that made me rethink the impact abbreviating terminology can have, especially regarding social justice. Stoner’s article is prompted by the turn to acronyms generated by our culture’s focus on BIPOC and on DEI, which has been given urgency by events such as the killing of George Floyd. Black, Indigenous and People of Colour have had their voices amplified by this and similar events so issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion have now understandably taken centre stage in many corporations and universities.

While Spooner acknowledges acronyms grew of necessity from groups that most needed to advocate for change, and through media requiring abbreviating practices, she points out that once these acronyms entered the “corporate” space, the shortening of the words risked having a negative impact.

“By being yoked together and reduced to first letters, the meanings … are diluted. Task forces proliferate, and metrics are put in place, but the acronym hides layers of complexity embedded in each of these words and renders them shallow,” Spooner writes.

She argues that “higher education institutions, of all places, should push back against this language-reduction. We should continually interrogate the power of words…. To effectively do the work of dismantling systemic racism, we cannot afford shortcuts, linguistic or otherwise.”

Perhaps, in the end, this isn’t so much an appeal for us to avoid abbreviations since it seems unlikely to have any effect, especially when brevity is all the rage. Rather, it is an invitation to take time to dwell on the actual meaning of words so we never take them for granted, and ensure these important concepts retain their pointedness and edge.

Our faith invites us to be fully present to one another. Perhaps that means we need to spell out exactly how we feel. And when in need of an acronym, I always turn to the best one I know, WWJD: What would Jesus do?

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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