Last night my mother told me, “We just got DSL” — a high-speed Internet hookup for the computer. As we talked, we discovered that neither of us knew what DSL stands for. (Subsequent research revealed that it means “digital subscriber line.” Of course, it is also “LSD” backward.)
This is not an isolated incident. In a growing trend, initials are replacing words. I call it “creeping initial syndrome” (CIS). The trend is particularly noticeable in psychology, where post-traumatic stress disorder is now almost universally referred to as “PTSD,” and attention-deficit disorder is called “ADD.” In addition, there are ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), SAD (seasonal affective disorder), IAD (Internet-addiction disorder), and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).
Sigmund Freud poetically named his disorders after classical Greek tragedies. Who would have guessed that, eighty years later, his intellectual descendants would sound like CMOs (career military officers)?
It seems all new inventions must be named with initials. At one time we were content to buy something called an “electric can opener.” Now we must choose between HDTV (high-definition television), DTV (digital television), HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface), DLP (digital light processing), and TFT-LCD (thin-film transistor liquid-crystal display) — most of them equipped with DVD (digital versatile disc) players. (Caution: an LCD differs from an LED [“light-emitting diode”].)
In the past, though initialisms existed, people still used the words they stood for, or other terms with the same meaning. TV was often called “television.” “LP” (which stood for “long-playing”) could be replaced by “record” — a word almost everyone used. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was usually referred to as “acid.” UFOs (“unidentified flying objects”) also went by the lovely name “flying saucers.”
Nowadays no one ever calls an SUV a “sport utility vehicle.” And CDs and DVDs in effect have no other names. One could, I suppose, just call them “discs,” but there are so many discs in modern life that the term is almost meaningless. Among these discs are CD-ROMs, another acronym whose meaning nobody knows. (Although I now do: “compact disc read-only memory.”)
The initialization of American life has extended even to fashion. An April 3, 2006, article in the New York Observer revealed: “In attempting to revive the double-breasted jacket for everyday wear, the magazine [Cargo] consistently dubbed it the ‘DB.’ ”
The worst offense is rendering rock bands’ names as initials. I recently visited Niagara Falls, Canada (a strangely desolate town), and picked up Pulse, the local free newspaper. In an article about the emo-punk supergroup The Black Maria, not only is the band’s name shortened to “TBm,” but the drummer’s former group, Far From Heroes, becomes “FFH,” and The Black Maria’s new album, Lead Us to Reason, is abbreviated “LUTR.”
I don’t remember anyone in 1964 calling The Dave Clark Five “TDCF.”
On that same trip to Canada I spent an afternoon at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I found it faintly disturbing that this august institution, established in 1914, constantly refers to itself as ROM, which, besides being a computer term, is the name of a failed Marvel Comics superhero from the 1980s.
With increasing initialization, there is inevitably duplication. A certificate of deposit and a compact disc share initials. So do an individual retirement account and the Irish Republican Army; political correctness and the personal computer; venture capital and the Viet Cong.
Why are initialisms ubiquitous? No doubt because they have a druglike effect on consumers. While one might debate the virtues of buying a new sofa, it seems imperative to have DSL or HDTV. Initialization, like so much of the modern world, bypasses the rational mind.
I say initialization has gone far enough. Bring back words! In my own work, I avoid initialisms. When writing an article about the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, I resisted calling them “the HVP,” which sounds like a polymer. Instead I wrote, “the orchestra,” or, “the Philharmonic.” Is that so difficult?
I want to start a new organization: Citizens Returning Initialisms Back to Ordinary Words (CRIBTOW). If we reignite the human imagination, we can find a word to replace “CD” — perhaps diskie. DVDs might be dubbed “round movies.” And SUVs may be called “fat cars.” Let the postinitialism age begin!