I'm on a soapbox as I sit down to write this, Dear Reader, and my message is simple: Actual words are almost always better than initials.
What's energized me on this issue is a phone call from a colleague. She was thinking about how to handle a little knot of capital letters that keeps popping up in a dissertation she's copy-editing. How should it be handled as a plural and as a possessive? We came up with a "lesser evil" sort of solution and moved on. But it was plain to both of us that the writer should have found a way to express the idea in real words.
The principle here is that language is already code – little clusters of sounds or marks on a page that represent vast realms of ideas, from the Declaration of Independence to Aunt Sally's recipe for cream-cheese brownies. Whenever you resort to initials, you lay on an additional layer of code. You're moving a step away from words that may carry some emotional weight, to abstractions that have to be translated. It's "language" that's more head than heart.
Arms-control experts get this – sometimes. What better way to signal that the United States has hit the "reset" button in relations with Russia than for Presidents Obama and Medvedev to sign a nuclear arms agreement widely known as "the START treaty"?
At the other end of the scale is one of my least favorite sips of alphabet soup, "weapon of mass destruction," or WMD. For a start, any abbreviation involving the letter "w" is likely to be a false economy: The letter is pronounced in three syllables, whereas "weapon" itself is only two. Then there's the awkwardness of the plural: just plain WMD? WMDs? WsMD?
The words themselves seem to overlook the fact that the arsenals of the US and its allies are capable of a fair bit of mass destruction, too. Maybe a more honest term would be "weapons we don't want them to have" – WWDWTTH.
Especially in geekspeak, initialisms are apt to sweep up extra words that aren't really essential. I saw this the other day while reviewing a text on computer security.
The point of the passage in question was that the worker bees ("end users") can compromise the computer security of a whole organization by introducing a virus via a "USB flash drive or thumb drive."
You can imagine the scenario – the weary employee who has been staring at a file on the screen all day copies it onto a flash drive on his key ring to work on it at home. That's a great work ethic, but a great way to bring electronic cooties from home back into the office, too.
The editing convention is to write out "universal serial bus." But what does this really communicate? I would guess 80 percent of the people who know what a "USB flash drive" is do not know what the initials mean.
For most people, I surmise, "USB" is a way to connect something to one's computer. That little tridentlike icon on the end of the cable may be more meaningful than the initials.
USB ports, though, can connect all kinds of devices, including printers. At issue in my text was the little drives on a key ring or (for the serious geek) a lanyard. Any reader who didn't get "thumb drive" wasn't going to be helped much by "universal serial bus." Are these initials really necessary? In this case, no.