The Joy of Jargon

Every profession has its fill of technical jargon that few outsiders understand. Since war paint has become so yesterday, these odd assortments of letters have helped bond us together.

The business world loves high powered gobbledygook like synergy, low-hanging fruit, paradigm shift, low-hanging fruit, outside-the-box, core competency, core value, ROI, mission statement, ducks-in-a-row, circle back, green light and repurpose. A classic that has survived generations is, "Let's throw it against the wall and see if it sticks." My current favorite nonsense statement is "It is what it is." (It's not something else.)

Government people have a love affair with initialisms and acronyms. (By the way—or BTW—If an initialism looks like a word you can pronounce it’s an acronym.) You can't do business with them unless you know terms like: RFP (request for proposals), RFQ (request for a quote), or GSA (Government Services Administration). In order to submit a proposal to the government I needed a CAGE number (Commercial and Government Entity). I once wrote a proposal for funding of a neutron detector by DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency). I thought that’s what the Army does but I was wrong.

I spent eight happy years at NASA Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. Because it shared a boundary with Moffett Naval Air Station I was treated to abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms from two government agencies that just can’t get enough of them. My favorite building on the Moffet side was the one with a very wide sign with the inviting title, COMRESPATWINGPAC. That’s Commander Reserve Patrol Wing Pacific Air Command. You can look it up in your DICNAVAB (Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations). How about an abbreviation inside an abbreviation? That would be USATA, for United States Army Test Measurement and Diagnostic Equipment Activity. The “T” is a stand-in for “Test, Measurement and Diagnostic Equipment,” or TMDE. I’m guessing that USATA made up a triple word score. I worked in NASA’s SGP, which stands for Atmospheric Physics Branch—in some language other than English. In my NASA days the Space Shuttle (STS) launched the EOS (Earth Observing System), scientists flew on the KAO (Kuiper Airbone Observatory) and gazed at the heavens with a first generation SIRTF (Space Infrared Telescope Facility).

Young people have jumped on the silly bandwagon so that they can text with fewer keystrokes. I admit I’m showing my age here but, after I mastered LOL and YOLO, I needed my daughter to explain the meaning to WUF, TU, X!, Y!, OOSOOM A3 and the opaque 404. I suppose we adults bear some responsibility. After all we came up with TGIF, TLC and FYI back in the era of rotary dial phones. And only those of us of a certain age know what “snafu” really means or that, according to its origin, one should pay the TIP before a meal.

Two youth generated initialisms that I find actually useful are those that I learned when I returned to MIT in 2009 to take a class with a bunch of “kids.” These two come in handy when people ask questions that they probably should not: RTFM (Read the f’ing manual.) and JFGI (Just f’ing Google It.) I’ve been tempted to use the former when a customer wants to know, say, the color code of a pH probe. But I don’t want to lose our customer service star. I’m also tempted to use the latter when an employee asks an obvious question but then I would not be the revered boss I strongly believe I am. Now if I want to know what a texting shortcut means I don't need to ask my kids. I JFGI.

How about initialisms that are followed by a redundant word? While developing our next generation controller I freely make use of the term “LCD display” even though the “D” already stands for “display.” It turns out that there are enough of these redundant acronyms or initialisms to warrant their own disorder: RAS Syndrome, or Redundant Acronym Syndrome syndrome. Other examples are PIN number (Personal Identification Number number), IRA account (Individual Retirement Account Account) and ATM machine (Automated Teller Machine machine).

The practice is especially insidious in our own water industry where we toss around terms like CSO, WTP, WTF (the clean version), WWTP, WWTF, MLE, B-P, RAS, WAS, ORP, DO, ANAMOX and the best new term since we substituted sanitary engineer for garbage collector—WRRF. That's Water Resource Recovery Facility, which is now the politically correct way to say wastewater treatment plant, which, in turn, became politically correct years ago for sewage treatment plant.

And before we leave the subject of government agencies: Who decided to lose the article that precedes the initials of an agency? When did it become common practice to say, for example, “According to EPA…” instead of “According to the EPA…” We don’t say “Federal government is broken.” We way “the Federal government is broken” (though both are equally accurate). So why do we change the rules when we turn words into letters? Don’t the Grammar police have enough on their hands to slow the spread of “basically” and “actually” in every sentence?

And while, we’re not on the same topic of nonsequiturs: When did everyone commence every answer to every question with “So…”? Is it because “basically” and “actually” take a whopping three syllables and “so” takes one?

I don’t need a lot of abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms to have a good time. All I really need is one dense paragraph. The really smart people in the electronics industry will soon run out of possible acronyms unless we invent new letters of the alphabet for them. Check out the first paragraph of a product announcement I received recently from an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) company. I changed the company name to protect the innocent and so I don't get sued:

Company XYZ is pleased to announce updates to its fido5200 REM Switch chip and the RapID Platform Network Interface solution support EtherCAT. The fido5200 REM Switch chip is configured via software driver as an EtherCAT Slave Controller (ESC) that supports cycle times down to 12.5µs. The RapID Platform - EtherCAT Network Interface is delivered as a module or embedded design that supports cycle times down to 250µs. Both products will be shipping in June 2015 and certified to the latest version of the EtherCAT Conformance Test Tool.

I think it has something to do with a processor but I don't have a clue.

It’s getting late. GTGB.