- Family Elder
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- Location: Kanata, Ontario, Canada
© Chris Sullivan 2019
Many organizations, both governmental and NGO, suffer from a problem, commonly found in government bureaucracies. In fact, there seem to be serious cases of it at provincial, federal and municipal levels. These may have been acquired by proximal activities. People from these governments may have been in too frequent, and perhaps even too intimate contact with bureaucrats who carry the disease. The symptoms are not considered a problem in some professions; in fact, the condition is so virulent because some consider it a badge of honour.
One hallmark of the disease, which has been named acronymosis, is the final stage of the disease, wherein the sufferer uses acronyms of various lengths as words unto themselves, without remembering what any of the component letters stand for. Indeed, the more pernicious forms of this disease involves complex grammars built around the vague, but never documented, meanings of non-words which started as placeholder acronyms.
The history of this condition began in earnest with the New Deal in the US, when countless American government departments were named, with (almost always) three-letter acronyms. It became common usage either to spell these department names phonetically, with their three letter-names, or to invent a new word, such as fibbie, by attempting to pronounce the acronym's letters directly.
In fact, these acronyms were given an acroname of their own: TLA, or Three-Lettered-Acronyms. Government and other institutions soon branched out, using more letters. Thus were born the HUAC (House Un-American Activiites Committee, which sounds like it could be a discussion group, but whose actual purpose, investigation, was lost in the lingo), and the AFL-CIO, combining the names of two organizations (American Federation of Labour, and Congress of Industrial Organizations). Even with a phonetic pronunciation, it used six syllables, making it difficult to use the term in ordinary speech. This would technically be called an SLA, but here the metadata does not adequately describe the placeholder's complexity. Here, the metanym stands for "Six-Letter-Acronym"
With the AFL-CIO a new phenomenon occurred, which turned out to be an early kind of acronymosis. Most people, even those who commonly have to use the acronym, even now, do not know what the name of the second organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, is. It is actually a meta-organization, but that should not matter. The common failing here, and in general in sufferers of acronymosis, is the inability to remember key parts of the original, non-acronymic name, for which the first-letters were chosen to stand. A trivial example would be being unable to remember that "the" FBI is an organization known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The modern sufferer of acronymosis has not used all or parts of the spelled-out version of the name for days, months or years, but uses the acronym every day, without consciously referring to any of its component parts,
Thus it is that a course in "English as a Second Language" (ESL), named with a simple TLA, may be confused with a course in "Teaching English as a Second Language", (TESL), named with an FLA, These are entirely different courses, with different teacher qualifications. One is learning to speak and write English; the other is learning to teach speaking and writing English. The learning course does not also teach teaching. However frequent use of these acronyms may, especially in close proximity to bureaucracies which must adopt these linguistic styles, result in much loss of time making erroneous references or denotations.
When telephone numbers went from three digits (which only dialed through to an exchange operator, requiring further use of English and manual switching) to five digits, to seven, to ten (some of which may have resulted in a person-to-person call), there were occurrences of other automatic machinery breaking into the telephone-call, sometimes resulting in many unwanted and unnecessary intrusions, when none were expected. This may result in a condition similar to acronymosis, where the telephone-caller begins to confuse the automatic machinery with the original purpose of the call. Suffers are diverted into many areas they are not interested in, and significant loss of time occurs.
It is unlikely that there will soon be any kind of cure for acronymosis, or that telephone-providers will stop adding new groups of telephone numbers, or that interactive voice response (IVR) systems will stop breaking into calls. The best defences will be the ones used by people who wish to delay cognitive problems, like Alzheimer's and dementia. These are things like Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Scrabble, and the like: exercises for the cognitive faculties.
Not a doctor.