Oh, Three-Letter Acronyms—Nothing Compares to You…

There are acronyms of other lengths, but does anyone really care about them? Of course not. Three letter acronyms (hereafter TLAs) are special. They’re endowed with two key properties that make them pearls nonpareil when measured against acronyms of other sizes.

First, they are almost universally sounded as individual letters instead of being read as a word. For example, you can kit out your data center with Power Series servers from IBM (sounded eye bee em) and use them to run high-frequency financial trades. Just don’t get on the wrong side of the SEC (sounded ess ee see) or your kids might not be going college—no matter how well they do on the SAT (always sounded; never read as sat). Why? ’Cause after the the SEC is done with you, you can expect a visit from the IRS (getting my point here?) who will be only too happy to seize everything you own—even toothpicks. Well, maybe they won’t seize that one grody, old, discolored, thrice-used toothpick you swiped from Chipotle, but good luck paying your kids’ college tuition with that.

But this neato sounding of letters doesn’t hold once you pass three letters. For example, you’re probably glad (especially with Putin’s recent shenanigans) that NATO (always read naytow) deterrent forces dutifully keep watch over Central Europe, even if the similarly envisaged SEATO (read seatow) didn’t quite work out. All told though, military alliances seem to be of waning importance. Our world is less dangerous than it was forty years ago, largely because global economic interests are increasingly interconnected—an entangling that would never have been possible without large-scale, multilateral trade agreements like GATT (always read gat).

See what I mean. TLAs aren’t simply read like lame-ass longer acronyms. They’re sounded Which brings me to the second unique property of TLAs.

Perhaps precisely because they’re sounded, using them liberally and for no apparent reason makes you look smarter. I mean, anyone who says “set ACP enable mode to warm-up” has to be smart, right? Likewise they can make you appear confident and in control, even if you have no idea WTF is going on. If I’m sitting next to you on a plane and we hear a thud followed by a whoosh, you might become uneasy and ask “is everything okay?” But if I reply “of course! That’s just the APU spinning up in response to ILS glideslope intercept” you’ll forget everything and go right back to sleep—even if the plane crashes into the sea three minutes later. Would you have gone back to sleep if I’d used some acronyms with four or five letters instead? I don’t think so. You’d have been bolt-awake. Just waiting for that crash.

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3 thoughts on “Oh, Three-Letter Acronyms—Nothing Compares to You…

  1. People usually sound them out when a vowel is involved. Like LOL can be either ell oh ell, or lawl. Also, file extensions are usually TLAs by design, but we pronounce .GIF files as jiff, or giff, instead of gee eye eff. We also like to spell out TGIF even though it is longer than a TLA.

  2. Pingback: Tinder: the Silicon Valley Perspective | {code} + [ideas]

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