Saturday, July 19, 2008

Acronyms and the End of the World

Everybody thinks they know what an acronym is, but nobody agrees on what it is. For example, a lot of people might think that LHC is an acronym for Large Hadron Collider, but others will claim that since LHC isn't pronounceable as a word, it isn't really an acronym -- it's just an abbreviation made by taking the first letter from each word. Compare this to NASA -- short for National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- which can be pronounced as a word and is therefore a better candidate for acronymy. On the other hand, I know a guy who claims that NASA isn't really an acronym either, since NASA isn't an actual word, unlike, for example, CAT, which is an acronym for Computer-Aided Tomography but is also the word to describe those furry little animals that sleep and eat and meow and purr.

I'm not so strict in my own usage of the term. I think LHC is a perfectly good acronym, for example -- even though it doesn't meet every criterion of the strictest definition of the term -- if only because there's really no better word to describe it. There are words such as "initialism," but to me they seem awkward and clunky. On the other hand, I've always been a little uneasy about acronyms made from other acronyms, such as APLA, which stands for AIDS Project Los Angeles, and AIM, which is short for AOL Instant Messenger.

But it doesn't really matter, since that's not what I wanted to write about anyway. What I wanted to write about are the acronyms that supposedly don't stand for anything. I'm talking about acronyms like KFC, SAT, and AARP. They once stood for something, but the official word today is that they're just letters.

KFC, as I'm sure you probably know, originally stood for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but at some point when people started becoming health-conscious and thought of eating fried foods as some sort of unspeakable act, the corporate executives attempted to make KFC stand for Kitchen Fresh Chicken. That never caught on, so nowadays KFC doesn't stand for anything. They still sell tons of fried chicken every day, however.

The story behind SAT isn't so clear. When I was a kid, SAT stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but apparently, for some mysterious reason, the people who own the test changed it to Scholastic Assessment Test. I don't know why -- one seems as good as the other to me. But the point is now moot, since SAT no longer stands for anything. It's just three letters.

As for AARP, this used to stand for American Association of Retired Persons. But that posed a problem, because you don't actually have to be a retired person to be a member -- you just have to be at least 50 years old. As a matter of fact, if you retired at age 49, I don't even know if they'd let you join. So it makes sense that AARP shouldn't stand for anything that has to do with retired people, but the people at AARP took it one step further and made AARP stand for nothing.

And this brings us to the words "shit" and "fuck." Ever since I was in elementary school, I've heard that "fuck" is an acronym for "Fornication Under Consent of the King," "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge," and various other unlikely expressions. I was young and naïve back then, but I was never stupid enough to believe the word "fuck" was an acronym. But apparently a lot of people are that stupid, and possibly even stupider. According to the documentary Fuck, which I saw a few months ago, something like 70% of the American people think "fuck" is an acronym.

A long time ago, H. L. Mencken told us "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," so it's hardly Earth-shattering news that people are stupid, but it is sort of depressing. And to make matters worse, a few months ago, there was a commercial I occasionally heard on the radio. I don't remember what it was advertising, but they somehow worked in some false etymology for the word "shit," claiming it was an acronym for "Ship High In Transit" -- which was supposedly what they used to write on crates of cow manure to ensure the crates were kept far from the engines to prevent the fumes from igniting and blowing up the ships. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but I bet there are millions of people who actually believe it.

I suppose we can be thankful that we're not as stupid as these people, but we can't afford to be smug about it, because these stupid people breed. And they vote. And they already outnumber us. It makes me doubtful about the future of humanity.

Which brings us back to the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. A lot of people are against it, because there's a chance that as soon as you turn it on, it will suck the whole Earth into a huge black hole. It's theoretically possible but extremely unlikely -- if a black hole were created by the LHC, it would probably be so unstable that it would be destroyed before it had a chance to do any damage -- but if it did create a black hole strong enough to swallow the Earth, I don't think it would be all that terrible. It would happen so quickly that we wouldn't even know what hit us. It would be a quick and painless extermination, rather than a slow lingering one in which, for example, each day the Earth becomes less capable of supporting animal and plant life. We'd all be living our lives, ignorantly believing in all sorts of stupid things, such as the origin of the words "fuck" and "shit," and then a moment later, we'd all be gone. And all our stupidity and ignorance would be gone with us. How can that possibly be a bad thing?