Tuesday March 29, 2005


We're up to our eyeballs in abbreviations.  The pace of social and technological change puts pressure on language, requiring the rapid coining of new words for new objects and ideas.  Sometimes these new words are created by repurposing an old word or by borrowing from another language, but often they are abbreviations of other words.  Some abbreviations have staying power, while some disappear soon after they're created.  The origin of still others is gradually forgotten as they become ordinary words.  Sometimes an odd thing happens: an abbreviation is stripped of its origins, not by gradual language change, but by fiat.

Many abbreviations are acronyms, made up of the first letters (or sometimes the first syllables) of the words in a phrase, and pronounced as a word.  Think of radar, scuba, or PARC.  Because acronyms sound like ordinary words, they're liable to become lexicalized in the minds of speakers who don't know their origins (quick, what's sonar short for?).  Other abbreviations are less susceptible to this process because they're still pronounced as individual letters.  Think of IBM, CRT, or UN.  The pronunciation and orthography of these abbreviations continually reminds speakers that they stand for some longer phrase, even if they don't know what it is (what percentage of the popluation knows what DNA stands for?).

In many cases, abbreviations are the intellectual property (a trademark) of some entity.  Occasionally, such entities will decide to do a strange thing: they declare that an abbreviation no longer stands for anything.  Despite the cues of its spelling and pronunciation, it is asserted no longer to abbreviate anything.  Call it disabbreviation.

The canonical example in the world of technology is SRI International.  SRI was originally the Stanford Research Institute, founded in 1946.  In 1970, SRI became independent of the University, and it's name ceased officially to refer to Stanford.  The SRI FAQ says:

What does SRI stand for? Are you affiliated with Stanford University or the Stanford Research Institute?
SRI International was founded as Stanford Research Institute in 1946 by a group of West Coast industrialists in conjunction with Stanford University. SRI formally separated from the University in 1970, and we changed our name to SRI International in 1977.

This leaves us with the odd word SRI, which sounds like it ought to abbreviate some three-word phrase (note that it's still prounonced ess-are-eye and not sri as in Sri Lanka), but doesn't.

I encountered another example of this recently.  AARP (note: no article) was founded in 1958 as the American Association of Retired Persons, but a few years ago (either in 1998 or 1999, I've seen both dates cited), the organization apparently decided it didn't want to be associated only with retired people, so it began to use only the initials as its name.  Like SRI, the name AARP still sounds like it ought to be short for something, but officially isn't.

There are other variations on disabbreviation.  In 1911, the Standard Oil company was broken up into several smaller regional oil companies.  One of them, Standard Oil of New Jersey, even after it was no longer officially Standard Oil, was known for years as Esso (from SO).  Eventually the name of the company moved another step further away from the original abbreviation when it was changed to Exxon.  (The history of the names of the various Standard Oil descendents and their product lines is actually very complex.  Check out this site for much more detail.)

I'm not sure what to make of the process of disabbreviation.  On the one hand, organizations can certainly name themselves whatever they like, including strings of meaningless letters (like AAA Roofing, for random example), so we might as well get used to it.  On the other hand, there's something uncooperatively contra-Gricean about names like SRI and AARP, and I doubt they're accomplishing the goal of dissociating themselves from their original meanings.  Upon first encountering one of them, many people surely notice the pronunciation or orthography and ask, "What does it stand for?"  What's the correct answer?  "It doesn't stand for anything" seems wrong—they're not random collections letters, after all—so the question remains unanswered.  The official answer, "Well, it doesn't stand for anything, but it used to stand for...", also seems unsatisfactory.  Now that the asker knows what words used to be associated with the letters, are they supposed to nod their heads and agree to forget their origin?  Not likely.  In the end, disabbreviation might be able to satisfy lawyers and legislators, but I doubt it will ever be able to erase the original meanings of abbreviations.

[Note that disabbreviation has another pre-existing meaning: taking abbreviations in a text and expanding them.  I offer my apologies for appropriating an old word, but consider this entertaining fact: if an abbreviation has been disabbreviated (my meaning) it becomes troublesome for people trying to write disabbreviation (old meaning) systems—should that word be expanded or not?]

[Update: It occurs to me that if the Standard Oil breakup hadn't been 50 years too early, they could have taken a hint from midcentury syntax theory nomenclature, so that instead of the following name progression:

Standard OilEssoExxon

...they could instead have gone with:

Standard OilExtended Standard OilRevised Extended Standard Oil.]

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And don't forget the disingenuously disabbreviated KFC. And going all the preceding one better, there's OCLC, which disabbreviated itself from "Ohio College Library Center" and then re-abbreviated itself to "Online Computer Library Center."

Posted by: Neal at Mar 29, 2005 8:55:56 PM

The grand-daddy of all Role Playing Games (RPGs) "Dungeons & Dragons" (D&D) was originally published by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR).

TSR successfully "disabbreviated" themselves at some point, when they incorporated, I believe...but now the D&D franchise is owned by Wizards of the Coast (WotC). (Pronounced "Watt-sea"!)

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Mar 30, 2005 6:47:53 AM

BBN of Cambridge, Massachusetts also disabbreviated its name sometime in the late 90s. The name used to stand for the names of its founders, Bolt, Beranek, and Newman.

Posted by: ACW at Mar 30, 2005 7:21:03 AM

Here's an amusing piece that deals with the subject in terms of memorability and a Wikipedia List of company name etymologies with lots of abbreviations ("KFC - short for Kentucky Fried Chicken, the company adopted the abbreviated form of its name in 1991 to avoid the unhealthy connotations of the word 'fried'. Recent commercials have tried to imply that the abbreviation stands for 'Kitchen Fresh Chicken'."). Somebody once explained to me why corporations were deabbreviating (something about being able to trademark a series of letters if they didn't stand for anything), but I forget the details and can't find anything by googling. I particularly regret the loss of the evocative Hongkong and Shanghai Bank to the anodyne HBSC.

Posted by: language hat at Mar 30, 2005 7:39:44 AM

Speaking of re-abbreviations, NIA, the name of an exercise format, used to stand for Non-Impact Aerobics. Now it stands for the much more hi-falutin' Neuromuscular Integrative Action. (But it's still really just non-impact aerobics.)

Posted by: Terminal Student at Mar 30, 2005 11:01:56 AM

KFC is an interesting case. Their legal page certainly seems to imply that KFC Corporation is the correct name of the company (the word Kentucky does not occur on that page). However, they don't seem to be shy about origin of the abbreviation—the first sentence on the home page is:

In 1939, Colonel Harland Sanders first gave the world a taste of his most famous creation, Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken, featuring that secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.

Here's an additional entertaining corporate name change (from the Colonel Sanders page):

In May 2002, [Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc.] announced it received shareholders' approval to change it's [sic] corporation name to Yum! Brands, Inc.

I kind of like the ring of Tricon Global Restaurants—it sounds faceless and intimidating. I'll bet they had a top-of-the-line fleet of black helicopters. Yum! Brands sounds like it could be the company where the Teletubbies work.

Posted by: The Tensor at Mar 30, 2005 3:54:54 PM

Yum! Brands--I'm envisioning odd tasting candy with anime characters on the wrapper and some Japanese slogan translated into bizarrely mangled english.

"It's like ocean in your mouth!"

Posted by: Terminal Student at Mar 31, 2005 9:51:36 AM

Language hat wrote:

> I particularly regret the loss of the evocative Hongkong and Shanghai Bank to the anodyne HBSC

Actually, it's HSBC, short for Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation -- and I don't know where you got the idea that it's been "disabbreviated". It's listed by its full name in the 2005 Yellow Pages for Hong Kong.

Incidentally, I think there was a similar trend among bands a few years back (don't know if it's still the case). The one that comes to mind is PFR, formerly Pray for Rain (though I feel sure I've seen others, I can't think of any specific examples).

Posted by: Wyvern at May 6, 2005 1:40:46 AM

BBN of Cambridge, Massachusetts also disabbreviated its name sometime in the late 90s. The name used to stand for the names of its founders, Bolt, Beranek, and Newman.



Posted by: mariioel at May 22, 2005 11:05:56 AM

Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada is named in honour of a late former Canadian Prime Minister. It goes by the acronym WLU. I'll call this a case of "non-disabbreviation". The university grew from a church-run post-secondary institution called Waterloo Lutheran College, later Waterloo Lutheran University (also WLU). When the university renamed itself to reduce its apparent attachment to the Lutheran Church, the new name was apparently chosen at least in part for the serendipitously matching acronym.

Posted by: Jonathan at Oct 20, 2006 9:47:31 AM