The CDA solution

I am intending to launch a new movement shortly: the CDA (Campaign to Defeat Acronyms). The need for this became apparent to me when, recently, I attended a meeting between some university people and a number of people from business and the voluntary sector. One of the university people was purporting to explain various developments in higher education, but what he was saying was probably totally incomprehensible to anyone from outside academic life – indeed, anyone not working in the Irish university system. He was talking about PRTLI, the HEA, the DRHEA, SFI, CSETs, RGAM, IUA, HEFCE (oops, that was an English interloper), IRCHSS, and lots more besides. One of the businesspeople looked on as if he had stumbled across some strange cult with its own ritual language. Eventually he interrupted and said – ‘Look, I don’t want to be rude, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about’.

My university friend was a little put off by this, but for a moment he tried to avoid the acronyms. However within about 30 seconds he was happily back to talking about IRCSET, and the businessman’s eyes glazed over. I helpfully offered to translate whenever an acronym came up, and after that we got on fine.

What is it, I wonder, that makes universities such fertile soil for this? Why do we need to find a boring name for everything and then compound it by turning it into an acronym? Don’t believe me? Well, if you work at a university whenever you next attend a committee meeting ignore the actual content for a moment and just count the acronyms on the fingers of your hands as they are mentioned and see how long it takes to get to 10. I’ll wager it will be fast enough for you not to have missed any important substance. We are in particular addicted to applying them to the names of academic or (even more likely) administrative units, to plans and strategies, to buildings, to sets of rules, to committee names, to absolutely everything. The trouble is, it’s an addiction, and you cannot easily will yourself to stop. It needs a thorough detox. You need a friend or colleague to remove the alphabet from your reach for a few weeks or even months, while you practise saying whole words.

But like every campaign to address an addiction, you’ll feel really good when at last you can manage to get through the day without an acronym. I’ve managed it now for about five weeks. Every day I’m getting better.

My next initiative is going to be my ‘Going Forward Outside the Box Campaign’ (also known as my anti-cliché campaign), but that’s for another post.

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16 Comments on “The CDA solution”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    How funny; I was just reading an article in the Times about the launch of the DRHEA and wondered could a proper name not have been found for it.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      The Russell Group would be a good model for renaming the DRHEA; the Russell in Russell Group is meaningless, it is the name of the hotel they first met in or some such, but Russell Group sounds so much nicer, more memorable, than DRHEA and, since the actual words are meaningless, it is usual given an explanation when it is first used, like you would an acronym: it is the Russell Group of leading research-intensive Universities. However, because it isn’t an acronym this is give in free text using proper grammar, “the Russel Group of leading research intensive Universities”, rather than with a bracket and an ugly expansion, “the Dublin Region Higher Education Alliance (DRHEA)”.

  2. Wendymr Says:

    You think academia’s bad? Try working in social services!

  3. Vincent Says:

    At NUI,Galway there is little enough of this beyond the name, for they have the critical mass to switch and continue in the mother tongue. While most if not all places where you could have acronyms -given that all names are in the Irish- they are seldom used.
    However on your main point, the why Universities, I haven’t a clue. But the next meeting might be held in Latin, Munster Irish or the French. That should halt the gallop, who would take time with CLG, when the actual words have punch. But the same in English, GAA, is a bit of a mouthful extended.

  4. Grainne Says:

    I think it is even worse than you portray. The acronyms have come to life and started sending out e-mails – apparently of their own accord – in my neck of the woods. They seem also to be able to mutate and evolve at an alarming rate. Be afraid!

  5. Maria Says:

    The Go FOB Campaign- very clever!

  6. cormac Says:

    Sometimes they’re unavoidable – perhaps orgaisations should take their cue from science and use clever acroynms that become meaningful words themselves – the laser, the rib, scuba gear etc.

    • David J Says:

      Just to follow up on what Cormac says here; I’m sorry to be a nitpicker but I feel I must interject. Most of what you’re complaining about are not actually acronyms. A collection of initials such as DCU, HEA or IRCSET is only an acronym if it forms a pronounceable word. So of the three examples I gave, only IRCSET is an acronym as you say ‘irk-set’, whereas you don’t say ‘d-ku’ or ‘hee-ah’. A collection of initials where you pronounce each individual letter on its own is not an acronym.

      I have pointed this out many times to many people and the same question that always comes back is invariably the same: “Well if they’re not acronyms, what are they then?” The answer is – I don’t know. 🙂

      • Perry Share Says:

        David, they (according to my old Cambridge Handbook of Copy-editing) are ‘abbreviations’. As you say an acronym has to be pronouncable – not sure if this includes DRHEA (see below) but of course the Dept of Community Rural and Gaeltacht Affiars (CRAGA) is routinely pronounced as Craggy Island. Not sure if this is a nickname, acronym or something else? Any obesessive lexicographers or taxonomists out there?


      • Yes, of course you are right: acronyms are supposed to be ‘words’ – like ‘radar’, for example. So what do we call the collection of letters that are not acronyms? Well actually, not abbreviations either – an abbreviation is a truncated version of a word, like ‘etc.’. So I don’t know the answer either…

  7. ROnan Says:

    “What is it, I wonder, that makes universities such fertile soil for this?

    “I think this displays a certain myopic view of the world.. or at least a lack of experience of working in different fields. I work in a university now and the acronyms used are fairly mild (usally organisation names). I’ve worked in certain other industries where the number of acronyms is many times much higher than in any university i’ve visited. Acronyms are shorthand and make life more efficient for insiders… all walks of life have their own verbal shortcuts and to complain otherwise misses the point. Now if the point was that we need to be able to communicate to others outside our field.. then avoidance of acronyms is a key point… perhaps our communication skills need to be updated

  8. Paul Says:

    I wish you luck with your anti-cliché campaign. While you’re at it, could you please include “The last number of years”, a meaningless phrase first perpetrated over the airwaves by Dick Spring, I think. What was the last number? Think about it!

  9. Clodagh Says:

    If you’d like a bit of inspiration for your ‘Going Forward Outside the Box Campaign’ Joseph O’Connor’s recent monologue entitle “Going Forward” on Drivetime Radio 1( 29th April) captures my own sentiments

    [audio src="http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2009/pc/pod-v-290409-3m33s-drivetime.mp3" /]

    Priceless!

  10. Perry Share Says:

    Aoife – Everyone knows that the DRHEA already has a proper name: Diarrhoea!

    My favourite acronym is TANKATAFKAP – The Artist Now Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince

  11. Stefan Says:

    The situation is still better than in France where most people would not even be able to spell out the meaning of the acronyms they are using.


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