In T.S. Eliot’s play, Sweeney Agonistes, Sweeney complains, “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”
Every day, I see evidence that much of modern discourse doesn’t use words at all.
Daily conversation and news outlets have become boiling vats of initialisms. Here are just a few of the ones studding the pages of my morning newspapers:
That last one in the list, NFT, has the distinction of being the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year.
NFT (Non-fungible Token): a certificate to say that you own something digital. Original versions of viral videos, memes, or tweets can be sold as if they were art.
Initialisms can serve a practical purpose. Such letter-strings as DNA, BPA, FTP, and PDF save us from having to remember lengthy chemical or technical terms.
Many are useful shorthand for government departments that are a familiar part of the culture: FBI, CIA, IRS, PBS. Everybody knows what they do.
Some initialisms however have the effect of obscuring meaning.
In the midst of the current pandemic, the names of CDC and WHO cannot be spelled out enough. Disease is a scary word for a scary thing. Controlling disease is a good thing, so let’s say it: Center for Disease Control.
The same goes for WHO. Health is what everyone desires, all over the world. Let’s speak the words: World Health Organization.
Some initialisms stand for evil realities that are obscured by being stated as letters. Instead of meaningful comments, they serve as meaningless battle cries that stir anger unanchored in thought. Translating BLM and CRT into the words represented by the letters does not clarify. Words like human equality and historical truth-telling might get us closer to their meaning.
Other initialisms, like GBV (Gender-based Violence) and FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), cloak concepts most people would rather not think about, let alone address.
Identifying politicians and other non-entertainment personalities in the news by their initials is another trend, and not just in headlines.
FDR, TR, JFK, LBJ, and MLK are well established. The leaders they stand for are dead, and their legacies are a part of history. Living politicians and rulers, on the other hand, are still building their legacies. Let them use their names.
For example, Representative Ocasio-Cortez embraces the moniker AOC, but does that mean the press should follow suit? Other politicians have hyphenated names that journalists manage to spell out without resorting to initials: Lucille Roybal-Allard, Mario Diaz-Balart, Cindy Hyde-Smith.
It seems to me that referring to people by initials only or by a single name is the mark of fandom: Cher, Dolly, RDJ. When the writer of a news article informs me in the first paragraph that Saudi leader Mohammad bin Salman “is known as MBS” and goes on to refer to him as that in the rest of the article, I shake my head. Known by whom? His admirers? What’s wrong with calling him Salman or Mr. Salman, or even Prince Salman?
Not only are initialisms becoming more numerous, they are getting longer.
Once the number three is exceeded, the initialism becomes harder to remember. For example, I don’t think I was the only TV viewer who kept mixing up the letters in NCIS in its early days. There was even an episode in which someone got it wrong as “NCSI.”
The poster child of memory-staggering length is the initialism that began as LGBTQ. It has expanded to LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual). Surely some classical scholar could come up with a respectful, pronounceable Greek or Latinate word to mean “persons of non-traditional sexual identities.”
Words themselves are slippery vehicles for thought, but initialisms set up a secondary barrier that can obscure meaning or serve as shibboleths.
shibboleth: a word used as a test for distinguishing friend from foe.
For labeling things, initialisms are great, but for meaningful discussion, we gotta use words.