Why acronyms are not all they're cracked up to be

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The Independent Online

Dr Wordsmith, our wandering language expert, had nowhere to go last night, so I let him doss down in the office overnight, which means that he is here again today to answer more of your questions about the way the English language is evolving. Fire away!

Dr Wordsmith, our wandering language expert, had nowhere to go last night, so I let him doss down in the office overnight, which means that he is here again today to answer more of your questions about the way the English language is evolving. Fire away!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I never cease to be amazed by the speed with which words sometimes become naturalised in England. Some poor words have to go through a process of suspicion and gradual accreditation that makes asylum-granting look speedy, but other words are given immediate membership. Do you remember how ricin, a poison that no one had ever heard of, was on everyone's lips overnight? (And has been forgotten again since then?)

Well, I have noticed in the last fortnight or so the sudden arrival of the acronym WMD, meaning "weapon of mass destruction". It is almost as if everyone had decided, spontaneously, that they couldn't go on saying "weapon of mass destruction" all the time and simply had to abbreviate it to its initials somehow. After all, we now call the disease Aids as if Aids were its real name and not an acronym. WMD is the same sort of thing, is it not?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No, it certainly is not. Quite by accident, the initial letters that make up Aids also form a word which can be pronounced, namely "aids". But you can't say "wmd". You can only spell out the letters. And I would wager that you haven't actually heard anyone say WMD. I certainly haven't heard any politicians say, "Just give us time and we will find some WMDs as soon as the Americans have planted some there." No, WMD is a term exclusively favoured by newspapers, because it is much shorter when written down. It isn't much shorter when spoken. It reminds me of the wise observation of the late Douglas Adams, who said that "www" was the only abbreviation that was much longer than the original. "World wide web" is three syllables, he said. "Double U, Double U, Double U" is nine syllables. And WMD is a bit like that, because "Double U Em Dee" is hardly shorter than "weapons of mass destruction".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, What about this "dodgy dossier"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: What about this "dodgy dossier"?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, It just struck me that it was a very British sort of phrase. You can't imagine the Americans calling anything "dodgy".

Dr Wordsmith writes: That's very true. I think that is because words such as "dodgy" come from that peculiarly British area where things are almost, but not quite, legal. We are so trained to keep the law that when we don't stick to it, we are very aware of it and we have a whole set of words and phrases to cover it. "Dodgy"... "iffy"... "sailing close to the wind"... "off the back of a lorry"... "no questions asked"... They're all very British.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I have just returned from a trip to Scotland, and I had never realised before that they have many different phrases for things up there, like when we say "take-away" they say "carry-out". Or, to be more accurate, something like "cairry-oot".

Dr Wordsmith writes: To make matters worse, the Americans have a quite different phrase for the same thing, ie "to go". "Two pizzas to go!" they say. I shall be interested to see which of these competing phrases becomes the successful survivor.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Talking of which, why do the Americans say, "Way to go!"

Dr Wordsmith writes: Do they?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, they do. When they are cheering someone on, or applauding them for having done something, I have often heard them say: "Way to go!" "Way to go, Homer!" is a phrase that is not unknown in The Simpsons.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I am afraid I can only answer questions on the English language. The American language is outside my orbit. Let us hope it stays there.

Dr Wordsmith will be back soon. Keep those queries rolling in!

Correction. Recently I wrote that one of the best cheap holidays available in Britain was "a leisurely fortnight on the Norfolk B-roads". This should, of course, have read "a fortnight on the Norfolk Broads".

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