Dec 242008

The day I found out that the letters in SAT don’t officially stand for anything was a glorious one. It was, as one of my old high school teachers would call it, my “epiphany of the day.” The SAT used to be named the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but then renamed to the Scholastic Assessment test, but finally, in 1993, was renamed to “SAT I,” without any meaning for the letters.

There are many other meaningless or ridiculous acronyms, many of them being the recursive acronyms used so often in technology. Any self-respecting Unix hacker knows that GNU stands for GNU’s not Unix. Those PNGs you work with just mean “PNG’s not GIF.” In fact there seems to be almost a conspiracy of technology people bent on naming things in the pattern “[name] is not a [something else [name] wants to disavow].” Some of them are even bizarrely misleading. LAME is a widely-used mp3 encoder/decoder, but started out its humble life as an add-on of sorts to the “official” encoder. The inventors of LAME had the letters stand for “LAME ain’t an MP3 Encoder,” and the name stuck. Perhaps LAME should go the way of the SAT.
Enough with the recursive negativity. There’s a whole world of positivism out there that’s taken a little too far. Now we enter the world of the needlessly long acronyms. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 was passed with overwhelming approval and to loud protests. You probably know it better as the USA PATRIOT Act. Do a little matching-each-letter-to-a-word-with-a-crayon, and you’ll see that it works. The CAPTCHA you type in when you’re signing up for a new web account actually stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” Quite a mouthful for a morphed picture.
In the military, the battleground communications system is sometimes referred to as BACN & EGGS–Battlefield Airborne Communications Node and Expeditionary Ground Gateway System. The military seems to dedicate a whole battalion to acronyms. Some almost seem impossibly unlikely, like CINCUS (pronounced “sink us”), which stands for “Commander-In-Chief of the US Fleet” (don’t ask me how that works), an acronym used until 1941. A training program used is named “PAST-A!”, which stands for “Pedagogically Adaptive Scenarios for Training–Automated!”. And of course, the current war was almost named “Operation–Iraqi Liberation.”

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