Drowning in Alphabet Soup

Showing that sometimes you need to maintain your sense of humor in today's world of advanced technology, author Brian R. Santo this month examines the tech-speak we use routinely to convey complex concepts to others—and finds it to often be LOL funny when taken out of context (or sometimes even in context). In "Acronym Addiction", Santo compiles a list of acronyms and initialisms that should leave you shaking your head in wonder that we even manage to communicate effectively with each other at times.

To verify his thesis that the alphabet soup of contemporary technical jargon has spilled over our collective plate, Santo spoke with a number of new IEEE Fellows. Sandra Johnson, chief technology officer for IBM's global small and medium businesses, told Santo that she recalls being at 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." Her question got all the way around the room, but no one was familiar with all of the acronyms being used. "It was amusing," she said. "This guy was going to town, and no one knew what he was talking about."

In that spirit, here are some of our favorites from Santo's feature:

  • ABT: Advanced BiCMOS technology. Building BiCMOS chips, which combine bipolar transistors and field-effect transistors, started out as a fairly complicated process; apparently it's become even more so.

  • MHEMT: metamorphic high-electron-mobility transistor. An MHEMT is a variation of a high-electron-mobility transistor (HEMT), which is a type of really fast switch. MHEMTs are found in adaptive cruise-control radar in cars you probably cannot afford.

  • PECL: positive emitter-coupled logic. A way of constructing logic circuits so that they operate faster. PECL is just ECL operated between positive voltage and ground. Another ECL variation is LVPECL (which we dearly wish were pronounced "love peckle").

  • SED: surface-conduction electron-emitter display. That should be SCEED, right? We thought so. Normally we disdain cheating, but on the other hand we admire the chutzpah required to simply discard 40 percent of your word count to get to a marketable acronym.

  • STRIFE: stress plus life (testing). A portmanteau posing as an acronym—there's no reason for this word to be in all capital letters other than the perversity of whoever minted it. We're fond of it anyway, because it actually means what it says.

  • WAF: wife acceptance factor, wife approval factor. A product feature or modification sufficiently appealing to women that they will permit their husbands to buy the product.

Our absolute favorite, though, has got to be TLA: three-letter acronym. As Santo, a senior editor at CED (Communications Engineering and Design) and a former editor at EET (Electronic Engineering Times), notes: 'Two letters are rarely enough. And four letters or more give people the inexplicable urge to try to pronounce them, even if they shouldn't. Thus, the electronics industry's penchant for acronyms is so powerful it has its own acronym.'

With 26 letters in the Roman alphabet, there are a possible 17 576 TLAs in English, and sometimes it seem that every one of them is currently in use. Maybe we should offer a contest at Spectrum Online (SOL) to see who can come up with the most TLAs not in use—and see how long it takes clever technologists to fill them. That would be BADbroken as designed. Or just plain bad, seriously. Let us know what you think.

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