Acronymically Speaking

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Someone told me recently at a gathering of English dons that the first English acronym was coined only 110 years ago in 1892. I listened eagerly to hear what that first acronym might have been, but the speaker couldn't remember. "No matter," I thought. "It's probably old technology anyway."

By comparison, the latest 10 acronyms have likely been created in the three seconds it took you to read this paragraph. They are probably "new technology," but in a few years they'll be as valuable to know as that original one, whatever it might have been.

The fact that we, in this field of technology, have so completely embraced the language of acronymia is of no little consequence. As I braced myself to attend COMMON again this year, preparing to fill my notepad with a whole new list of burgeoning acronyms, I IMed our Executive Managing Editor, Victoria Mack. "What kind of dictionary do we use at the magazine to check acronyms?" I asked.

A Journalistic History of Midrange Acronyms

As it turns out, in 1994, she began compiling a list of acronyms and abbreviations that have been used in the issues of our predecessor publications. This informal dictionary, handed from one copy editor to another like a sacred testament, is now a 67-page, single-spaced document. It is a Rosetta stone of the midrange experience: From abend to zSeries, it chronicles a language used by technologists that continues to grow and thrive. As new technologies come onto the midrange, she and others will add new acronyms and abbreviations, much as a family might acquire new household gadgets. Were I to shop for this household this year, lo! I would buy SOAP to finally wash the SOCKS that came out in V3R4 and maybe clean up some of the GUI that's become encrusted with Web!

Stocking Up

COMMON, by analogy, is one of the grocery stores where I pick up these new acronyms and abbreviations. I cart them home in grocery-bag-sized satchels filled with printouts of PowerPoints and white papers and throw them into the corner of my office where they will age for several months. There is too much to learn, too much to absorb, and far too little time to read through everything. After a few weeks, the piles of paper sort themselves out--the stuff that is hot rising to the top, the stuff that's cold falling to bottom--until finally some semblance of structure appears. In the meantime, new acronyms continue to arrive daily by email, prompting me to tunnel through my mounds of paper for some explanation of what it all means.

Were people christened by the benefit of technology, we would--each of us--have four names, one of which would be a number. Names like "Universal Nice Guy/Forty-Fourth." But we would be known affectionately merely by our acronyms, as in "UNG/44." Likewise, we would only have an average life expectancy of about eight months.

Acronymia Dying: The Rise of Brands

But isn't the use of acronyms dying?

Outside PartnerWorld in February, Oracle had commissioned the creation of a 30-foot sculpture of a blue Brachiosaurus that was loaded on a flat-bed truck and driven around the Moscone Center. It carried a placard that read, simply, "DB/2." The message was clear to the attendees: DB/2 is obsolete and should be extinct. Why? Maybe because it is only a three-letter acronym? By comparison, Oracle isn't an acronym at all. It's a...well, it's an oracle of things to come! Right?


Yet, this made me ponder. Was it possible that perhaps the real reason OS/2 was beat out by Microsoft years ago was simply that Windows wasn't an acronym either? Not because Windows was better, but because everybody knew what a "window" is?

Is the use of acronyms destined to fade in the marketing of technologies? If so, are we to be saddled with a quirky new techno-speak that eschews the syllabic verbal tics of three- and four-letter acronyms? Technologies like SameTime and WebLogic and Solaris and WebSphere? Brand names! Uck!

The Linux Generation of Acronyms

Fortunately for IBM--that paradigm of acronymia--the legion of youth that is graduating from universities with computer science degrees knows much more about the coining of new acronyms than about English language usage. After all, they have been raised exclusively on an acronymic diet of UNIX and its little brother Linux. Indeed, the open standards movement is riddled with quirky four letter acronyms like SOAP and UDDL. For this reason alone, it's doubtful that future technologies will have proprietary brand names. Brand names require spellcheckers, and college grads these days don't have the time to use them.

Meanwhile Microsoft muddles into middle-aged branding strategies trying to bridge the gap with constructs like Windows XP and its whole bizarre anti-acronymic technology called .Net. (Pronounced Dot Net: Is it an acronym, a technology, something like a post-it note, or one of those little hat things that blue-haired old ladies wear after the visit to the beauty parlor?)

WebSphere: Acronymic Stew?

Unfortunately, IBM seems to have hired a bunch of English majors into their marketing team and appears to be headed down the same path as Microsoft. IBM's WebSphere definitely had me worried for a while. It didn't have that crisp linguistic snap of a good acronym rolling off the tongue. It sounded both too smooth and too funky at the same time, like one of those green glass balls wrapped in knotted twine that you sometimes see in an antique store posing as a Portuguese fisherman's float. Ah, but good old IBM! Once I looked inside, I was relieved. Goodness! WebSphere is absolutely filled with acronyms! It's a veritable sphere of acronymic critters, all swimming about and interacting with one another. Like those sea monkeys they used to advertise in the comic books! WebSphere will do just fine!

The Good, the Bad, and the Really Bad!

But don't get me wrong. Even well-constructed technologies can end in disastrous user acceptance if their acronyms don't ring true to our ears. As I browsed through the old Midrange Computing dictionary of acronyms, I was struck by a few that still cause me to shudder. Who coined the FSIOP? (Pronounced Fizzy Op!) What about the HIC? And who can forget those two dwarves DIP Switch and DIMM? And still, even after all these years, whenever I hear someone pronounce SNADS, I want to hand them my handkerchief. Ah, it can be a sad life for some technologies, living with the names by which we have christened them.

So this year, at COMMON, armed with my PDA, I've determined to study and promote only those technologies that actually resonate in my ears. Lots of long-o and crisp-p things. And considering the economic state of the technology sector, IBM and others ought to follow my lead. It's time for some real snap-crackle-and-pop to brighten up our IT shops, cheer up the sales reps, and strengthen those software purchases. After all, WYHIWYG (What you hear is what you get) and it's time to put aside the FUD factor and get our shops moving again.

TMS/2 is the Editor in Chief of MC Press, LLC. He has written extensively about program development, project management, IT management, and IT consulting, and has been a frequent contributor to many midrange periodicals. He has authored numerous white papers for iSeries Solutions Providers. His most recent consulting assignments have been as a Senior Industry Analyst working with IBM on the iSeries, the mid-market, and specifically on WebSphere brand positioning. He welcomes your comments about this or other articles and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Thomas Stockwell

Thomas M. Stockwell is an independent IT analyst and writer. He is the former Editor in Chief of MC Press Online and Midrange Computing magazine and has over 20 years of experience as a programmer, systems engineer, IT director, industry analyst, author, speaker, consultant, and editor.  


Tom works from his home in the Napa Valley in California. He can be reached at





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