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Initialisms and acronyms: the scourge of our times!

Pauline Cyr, Certified Translator and Journalist
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council

At a conference on R&D in health and safety, a CNA representative discussed the dangers of CVAs and IHD, and the development of new drugs such as PEG, GDNF and VEGF. He recommended an ECG for people over 40 and reminded everyone that PFDs were mandatory on all boats. After that, a woman from a local PHU stood up and said that in the FAQ of the CIHI site, she had read that MSG was harmful and that HIV transmission rates are on the rise.

Phew!

For the last twenty years or so, initialisms and acronyms have been popping up everywhere, invading the media, documents and even conversations. Text messaging has increased this trend, so much so that a new language seems to have emerged.

These abbreviations look suspiciously like secret codes known only to a chosen few, a fact that leaves the rest of us wondering if their true intent is indeed to make those with "inside knowledge" feel superior at the expense of the majority.

Yet when we venture to ask—a little red-faced—what MSG, VQA, CCAC and TCDSB really mean, the speaker's easy confidence may give way to uncertainty.

For example, not that long ago, we used to refer to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in French as Société Radio-Canada. The term was clear and straightforward, and everyone knew what it meant. Now, when we hear SRC (the French equivalent of CBC), it takes us a second to figure out what it means. Plagued by all these little moments of doubt, we find ourselves distracted and end up losing interest in the media.

In the medical field, the use of initialisms has reached catastrophic proportions. We no longer suffer from interstitial cystitis, but from IC. We no longer have a cerebrovascular accident, but a CVA. An abortion is now called a VTP, and an electrocardiogram, an ECG. How do we cope?

Initialisms and acronyms

Initialisms are abbreviations formed from the first letters of a series of words with each letter pronounced separately, as in LCH, SME, GST and CBC.

Acronyms are pronounced as one word: CEGEP (French for collège d'enseignement général et professionnel), AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).

Because of their pronunciation, acronyms enter our vocabulary more rapidly, often becoming ordinary words written in lower case. Over time, we end up forgetting their origin, as is the case for the following words: radar (radio detection and ranging), an acronym dating back to 1943; laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), dating back to 1960; CEGEP, dating back to 1965; and AIDS, dating back to 1982.

Every year, numerous acronyms are added to dictionaries.

Influence of English on French

Abbreviations are the trend in Anglo-Saxon culture. And the French language is increasingly influenced by this trend. Since it is difficult to come up quickly with acceptable translations for all the new terms that emerge every year in technology, medicine, science and business, the French tend to use English abbreviations, a practice that could be seen as impoverishing the French language.

For example, the French use the following English abbreviations: JPEG, CD-ROM, DVD, BD (Blu-ray Disc), CD (compact disc), which normally should be DC (disque compact) in French. For FAQ (frequently asked questions), someone came up with the clever idea of creating a term adapted to the English abbreviation—foire aux questions. Although a laudable strategy, it still suggests an inadequacy on the part of the French language.

Even people's names are abbreviated. Recently, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of rape and attempted rape. After only a few days, the Francophone media nicknamed him DSK. In Quebec, Pierre-Karl Péladeau, heir to the Quebecor empire, is known as PKP. And during Michael Ignatieff's short-lived popularity, the English newspapers called him "Iggy"!

Usage

To ensure that readers can understand a text, writers should write abbreviations in full at first mention. Initialisms can be written with periods, but they tend to be dropped in usage. In French, the gender is naturally that of the main noun: le FMI (Fonds monétaire international). And although accents are often used in abbreviations written in Canadian French, they should be omitted. For example, Canadians should write ENAP instead of ÉNAP, CECM instead of CÉCM, and REER (pronounced "réerre" and not "rire") instead of RÉER. On the other hand, accents are not commonly used on capital letters in France, a fact which could lead to some unfortunate confusion—UN PRETRE VOLE ET TUE (Priest steals and murders) means something entirely different from UN PRÊTRE VOLÉ ET TUÉ (Priest robbed and murdered)!

A necessary evil?

Initialisms and acronyms will no doubt keep increasing in number to meet needs for speed and concision. However, we must not lose sight of the main goal of communication: to be understood. And communicators should keep in mind that their own laziness forces readers to make a greater mental effort and possibly lose interest. For rapid and effective communication, it is probably best to avoid abbreviations. The text will be a little longer, but much clearer. After all, common sense must prevail!