Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Perils of the TLA

There’s many a slip twixt the intention and the abbreviation.

In the course of my duties as a subcommittee chair of the ASTM International, I recently shepherded a ballot to withdraw a standard on host computer communications because “the standard is not needed: manufacturers use their own SDKs and users can select an SDK from a menu.” One voter complained that he couldn’t find “SDK” in any dictionary but did find two definitions on the Internet: “Software Development Kit” and “Super Donkey Kong.” He presumed correctly that the former was intended, but he made his point: We should spell out our abbreviations at first occurrence, even if we think everyone should know them.

It’s easy to imagine amusing coincidences from such ambiguity, e.g., the ASA rating on a photographic medium used to record the luncheon meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. Or the National Science Foundation being caught at the bank with NSF (non-sufficient funds). Or the CIA spy who hangs out at the Culinary Institute of America. We could go on and it would look like fun.

Sometimes it isn’t fun. Remember the famous legal trademark dispute between the World Wrestling Federation and the World Wildlife Fund? The giant panda won the WWF fight, as WWE know.
Once I was scheduled to fly from Baltimore-Washington Airport to Miami for a large religious meeting. In preparation for that meeting (and to avoid sunburn), I wore a baseball hat that bore the large letters “NSA.” When I mistakenly ended up at the gate of Fort Meade, Maryland (right next to the airport), I got a strange look from the security guard. Fortunately, I still made my plane.

Undeclared abbreviations can cause confusion even in a narrow field. In connection with medical imagery, I have to inquire regularly whether the American College being called ACR is Radiology or Rheumatology. But my close encounter of the worst kind concerned two methods of solving differential equations, both called SDA: Strong Discontinuity Approach and Spectral Domain Approach. The name of the Russian mathematician Boris Galerkin is associated with both, which deepened the confusion.

“Super Donkey Kong” doesn’t sound so funny anymore.

I think we ought to avoid double meanings of abbreviations at least in the same field. To this aim, I offer the public service of pointing out a new spell-out of LCD that emerged at a recent solid-state-lighting committee meeting: the Light Code Designation (LCD) system for LEDs.  The term doesn’t seem to have reached Google yet, so there may be hope for liquid-crystal displays if we can head this one off at the pass.

By the way, in the title of this essay, TLA means “Three-letter abbreviation.” I haven’t even mentioned two-letter abbreviations (numerous PCs, nm as nanometers versus nautical miles) or four-letter abbreviations with multiple meanings (most notoriously the ISCC).

What are some amusing/confusing TLA’s in your field?

Michael H. Brill

[Note: When I began this essay, I incorrectly used “acronym” in place of “abbreviation.” An acronym is a very special abbreviation that spells a pronounceable word. For example, when NBS changed to NIST (rhymes with “mist”), it graduated to an acronym. NRC and NPL are still just abbreviations. MHB]