When you live on the cutting edge of technology, there are, literally, no words to describe it. Instead we have acronyms. Lots and lots of acronyms.
And for good reason. Imagine a discussion of high-density-technique metal-oxide semiconductors, integrated database application programming interfaces, or—let’s go out on a limb here—separate absorption-graded multiplication avalanche photodiodes. Without acronyms, by the time you got halfway through the conversation, the technology in question would be obsolete.
Here we’ve compiled a list of our favorites to help you through your day. It’s not meant to be comprehensive—there are plenty of more thorough sources, including an IEEE dictionary—and it’s certainly not meant to be offensive. But we hope it shows the interesting and sometimes really weird ways new acronyms come about.
Don’t feel bad if many of these terms are new to you. It has gotten to the point where even the luminaries are in the dark, so to speak. We contacted several newly minted IEEE Fellows, whose experiences prove the point.
Sandra Johnson, chief technology officer for IBM’s global small and medium businesses, recalls attending a presentation that was so chock full of esoteric acronyms that she ”leaned over to the people next to [her] and asked if they knew what the presenter was talking about, and they didn’t,” she says. Johnson’s question got all the way around the room, but no one was familiar with all of the acronyms the presenter was using. ”It was amusing,” she says. ”This guy was going to town, and no one knew what he was talking about.”
”Certainly I’ve been lost,” says Charles J. Alpert, technical lead for design tools, at IBM’s Austin (Texas) Research Laboratory. ”Especially the first year I was at IBM. I’m embarrassed. I’m new. But I realized I might as well interrupt people when they’d use acronyms I didn’t know and ask.”
That’s Waguih Ishak’s philosophy, too. ”I think it’s actually sometimes insulting to assume people know these acronyms,” says the vice president and chief technology officer of chip maker Avago Technologies, in San Jose. He recalls a corporate technology review at HP in 1996. Intrigued by the volume of acronyms he heard during the very first presentations, he began writing them down. Ishak was scheduled as the penultimate speaker, but after the barrage of scholarly papers, he realized everyone was exhausted. So he scrapped his presentation and instead announced: ”I’m going straight to the glossary.” He’d compiled seven slides’ worth of acronyms in just two days.
The vast majority of what we commonly call acronyms are really another type of abbreviation: an initialism. Technically an initialism becomes an acronym only if pronounceable as a word—radar (radio detection and ranging) or BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), for example. On the other hand, people have found ways to pronounce the ostensibly unpronounceable, and thus SCSI (small computer system interface) became ”scuzzy.” More recently, some of the folks involved in the wireless metropolitan area network (WMAN) field have publicly wondered if it was a good idea to pronounce that acronym ”woman.”
Engineers, who tend to be adamant about technical standards and specifications, are pretty ambivalent about consistent capitalization. Thus we end up with the indecisive VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and QoS (quality of service). To say nothing of MIPS and MOSFET, which, rendered entirely in capital letters, are like little printed screams.
Some acronyms become like talismans—kept and frequently used long after the exact meaning has faded. IBM’s Alpert says he once attended a ”Jeopardy”-like game held for a gathering of 300 design engineers. ”One category was acronyms. We all recognized them, but nobody knew what they were. We’d used them for so long we’d forgotten what they stood for,” he says.
The classic example is laser. Though countless people use lasers every day, most nontechies have no idea the word is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Laser’s place in language has so evolved that it has even spawned a verb: ”to lase.”
Some lexicographic wit coined a term for what’s happened to laser, radar, and their ilk: they’ve become anacronyms, a neologism that smooshes the sounds (and the meanings) of acronym and anachronism. The product of smooshing two words together, by the way, is a portmanteau.
When an acronym becomes an anacronym, funny things can happen to it. For one, people sometimes start saying the acronym coupled with the verbalization of one of its constituent elements. Hence in ”SCSI interface,” the word ”interface” is completely redundant, because that’s what the ”I” is for.
Another linguistic mind-bender is the creation of matryoshka acronyms—acronyms that, like Russian nesting dolls, when opened are found to contain other abbreviations inside. Our favorite: ABT, Advanced BiCMOS Technology, with the acronym BiCMOS right in the middle. True, BiCMOS isn’t exactly an acronym; it’s more of a portmanteau of bipolar and CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor), but you get the idea.
Using the 26-letter English alphabet, the number of possible three-letter acronyms is 17 576. And yet the potential afforded by this sizable number is apparently insufficient for engineers and technology hawkers who can’t seem to avoid reusing abbreviations.
Take, for example, ATM. It is asynchronous transfer mode, automated teller machine, and Adobe Type Manager. What we love about ATM is that even engineers don’t know which ATM anyone is talking about without contextual clues. It is the same with DLL (dynamic link library and delay-locked loop) and SPI (SCSI parallel interface, serial peripheral interface, stateful packet inspection, and system packet interface). And then, of course, there’s PC: printed circuit, personal computer, program counter, and, oddly enough, ”carrier power” of a radio transmitter.
Though we can’t help you tell whether someone is talking about CMOS or sea moss, we think we can broaden your knowledge of the industry lingo. So for your delectation, we’ve compiled a banquet of some of our favorite recent electronics acronyms and initialisms. Find your favorites or see how many you know. If you’ve had an amusing encounter with an abbreviation or know the odd secret history of an acronym, drop us a line.