Fighting Acronymania

Several years ago I was called to participate in a session at Holland College where a new e-commerce course was being developed. As is the tradition at the College, various industry people joined with various educators to develop the curriculum, with an emphasis on the practical.

During the introductions, several of my industry colleagues described their professions in such an acronym-laden way that I had no idea what they did: ERP, MIS, EDI, CRM and the like. I protested, and suggested that we all endeavour to not use acronyms for the rest of the session. The reaction to this was not positive: you would think that I had asked people not to talk at all.

People who speak in acronyms claim that they’re a “handy shorthand” that allows conversation to proceed more efficiently. While that may be true, what goes unspoken is that they are also used, whether conciously or not, to construct a wall between those “in the know” and those not.

You’re at the hospital and your doctor orders a “CBC and Chem 7.” What does it mean? Who knows? The doctors and nurses are speaking a foreign language, in plain hearing of those most deeply affected by their mumblings, and this acronymania, while it lets them zip around more quickly, serves only to further elevate their position as all-powerful medical gods. Which isn’t good for anyone.

I remember talking to a colleague several years ago during “IT Week” on Prince Edward Island. She had been telling her mother, over the weekend, that she was going to be presenting at an “IT Week special event.” Her mother wanted to know what “it week” was — what was the “it” she was talking about?

People in Government are fond of talking about the RFP (Request for Proposal), the RFQ (Request for Quotation), the RFI (Request for Information). They rattle off these terms like they know the difference between them. I once asked someone what the difference was, and they couldn’t tell me. Apparently nobody actually knows.

The worst offenders here are my friends in the federal government: during a trip to Elections Canada in November, I sat back and watched several colleagues there have a conversation that consisted almost entirely of acronyms. When I asked them to speak in plain language they reacted much as my Holland College group did: “that’s just how we talk!”

So here’s my humble request: if you’re an acronymaniac, take the next week and try and speak acronym-free. Treat it as a game if you wish: see if you can actually pull it off. I think what you will find is that you can speak to a much broader range of people, with greater clarity and understanding, than you ever imagined.

Let me know what happens.

Sitting in the lounge at YHZ, waiting for a flight to YYG after leaving BOS this morning after a week in NH at YPI where, in my off hours, I revelled in the games of the DNC. Looking forward to seeing CLM and ODLR.


Ken's picture
Ken on January 31, 2004 - 02:50 Permalink


Alan's picture
Alan on January 31, 2004 - 03:55 Permalink

Just to let you know, RFP is the only one you need to know. The rest are meaninglessness as you have described. RFP is the thing that differentiates from tender and can save you and/or your client’s arse from much grief.

Dave Hyndman's picture
Dave Hyndman on February 1, 2004 - 12:30 Permalink

Now was that all inspired by my little e-mail to you?