Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on April 3, 2005

Heidi Harley of HeiDeas has piqued my interest in acronyms again. Poking around on her website, I found this paper about acronyms. (Q-Pheevr of A Roguish Chrestomathy found it, too, last August, and blogged about it here.) In this paper, Harley tries to answer the question of why, for example, why the Central Intelligence Agency is referred to as the CIA (not as just *CIA), while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is referred to as NASA (never *the NASA). She finds a pattern based on whether the acronym is pronounced like an ordinary word (e.g., NASA), or spelled out (e.g., CIA). She reserves the term acronym for the former, and abbreviation for the latter, and shows that acronyms formed from names beginning with the just about always lose it, as in the NASA/*the NASA example. On the other hand, abbreviations formed from names beginning with the usually keep it (though the pattern is not as strong as that seen for acronyms).

A few days after I’d read the paper, a couple of exceptions occurred to me. First of all, there’s the O.C.. For the longest time after the show of the same name starting running, I didn’t know what the abbreviation stood for, but eventually I figured out that it stood for Orange County. Even then, though, I was uneasy about my conclusion. The fully pronounced name was Orange County, not *the Orange County, so how did the the get into the abbreviation? (I guess this isn’t an exception to Harley’s claim after all, now that I think about it: She addresses only the names that actually do start with the, and what happens to it when the name is abbreviated.)

The second exception came from my dad’s stories from his days at a Gulf Coast refinery before I was born. One of the buildings there housed the fluidized catalytic cracking unit, or FCCU. FCCU wasn’t an abbreviation; it was definitely a true acronym, that Dad and his buddies had lots of fun pronouncing. And, contrary to Harley’s generalization, it kept the the. They referred to this piece of equipment as the FCCU. And when another one was installed, they called it the FCCU 2!

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7 Responses to “FCCU!”

  1. jeff said

    Another exception: the neonatology department in a hosiptal is commonly referred to as the NICU (nick-kyoo).

  2. hh said

    Hey ho! Glad to find that that paper was of interest!
    Just a quick note, though: I don’t think either the FCCU or the NICU, as described here, are exceptions to the generalization. That is, these are both pieces of equipment, of which there could be more than one — one could talk about an FCCU, or two NICUs — that is, the acronym here is of just the compound common noun, not of a unique definite description, and hence is expected to behave like a common noun. The thing about NASA etc. is that there’s only one of them — that is, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is itself a proper name — there’s only one. You can’t talk about a National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or two of them…
    In the paper, I mention cases like radar’ and ‘scuba’ which are common nouns (albeit mass ones, which makes them a bit tricky). I also discuss the case of ENIAC, whose acronym started out as a common noun and then morphed into a name…not surprising given that there was only one ENIAC and not much prospect of building another.

  3. Anonymous said

    (“Hi, short time reader, first time commenter”)

    I’ve always called the Department of Energy “the DOE”, but in the last few years I’ve realized that I’m in the minority; virtually everyone else in my industry seems to refer to it just as “DOE”. In fact, DOE’s own websites also call it that. Which would seem to put it in the same class as NASA.


  4. Neal said

    Hmmm…OK, I guess Heidi’s right. They could and did have two FCCUs, so maybe it wasn’t being used as a definite description. And if you’re talking about more than one hospital, you could talk about each one’s NICU. But Bruce’s example does seem to be a legit counterexample to Heidi’s second rule (the one that is known to have more exceptions to it).

  5. hh said

    Yep, that DOE example is really an exception. Actually, it seems like abbreviated government agencies are starting to lose their determiner pretty generally — I think it’s q pheevr who notes that Porter Goss calls the CIA simply CIA, and I’ve found also a few cases of the USPS being referred to as USPS. It still sounds weird to me — that is, for me, the need for the definite determiner in these cases has the status of a feature of my grammar. But the abbreviations are prone to reinterpretation as bare locative nouns (if my idea about university and media names is right).
    Another factor I wonder whether might be relevant (star!) is the role of government style mavens. In trying to discover the actual use of an acronym ‘CINDI’, which was used WITH a determiner on the USGS website — the only real solid-looking exception I ran across — I wrote to the USGS. The assistant underflack who wrote me back said that their style people had determined that ‘the CINDI’ use was ‘correct’. But she herself referred to it as plain CINDI, no determiner, in the email. So I wrote back, explaining about prescriptive vs. descriptive, and would she please tell me what people actually did in spoken conversation — did they really say ‘the CINDI’? Or did they call it just ‘CINDI’? She wrote back, sounding increasingly worried, that the *right* way was with the deteriminer, and she was sorry to have misled me by making a mistake in her earlier email. I wrote back saying, I don’t care about the *right* way, just what do people actually do? Her last email insisted that it was ‘the CINDI’, as the style people said, apologized again for her ‘mistake’, hoped profoundly that I would not publish anything suggesting that ‘CINDI’ might be the right way to use it, and cc’d the whole exchange to her boss, so he could see that she was saying the right thing. I ended up leaving CINDI out of my article altogether.
    The degree of paranoia she exhibited really threw me. How much power do government style officials really have, anyway? could they be singlehandedly removing determiners from abbreviations and inserting them on acronyms? (Just doing it to wreck my nice generalization, too, I bet! :) )

  6. Neal said

    Sometimes the gov’t acronyms lose not only the definite article, but also some of the letters of the acronym. Well, OK, just once, as far as I know. When I started hearing about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in April 1993 (during the Branch Davidians siege), it was referred to as the BATF. Somewhere along the way since then, it changed to just ATF, for no apparent reason.

  7. [...] …told stories from his days in the oil refinery, including good-ol-boy nicknames for fluidized catalytic cracking units. [...]

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