Friday, November 18, 2005

The power of acronyms

originally posted by John

Differences between initialisms and acronyms are likely to be apparent only to students of the more recondite reaches of lexicography. At least that’s what I thought until a day or two ago. Now I’m not so sure. Now I have an idea forming in which acronyms are tools of the powerful, used to manipulate hierarchical trust, for good or ill, while initialisms are merely trust-neutral onlookers.

Acronyms are shorthand for something beyond themselves. They are walled-off territories and, in themselves, not (necessarily) threatening. Though, of course, they can be. They have owners who not only own the acronym itself but, and here’s where the power lies, they own all its walled-in knowledge and its connotations. And since ownership determines context, use of the acronym is always what the owners decide it is. Thus, when someone talks of WMD, DU, and now, WP, everyone knows they mean what the Pentagon says and not necessarily weapons of mass destruction, depleted uranium or white phosphorus. Likewise, DEFRA (an acronym in initialism’s clothing if ever there was one) owns FMD, as opposed to foot and mouth disease. (POSIWID is an initialism. And a pretty wonderful one it is too given its capacity to get to a meaningful reality and expose nonsense for what it is.) So, I contend, an acronym’s POSIWID is the reinforcement of power.

Two recent bits of reading gave rise to this idea. The first came about after an email chat with Richard reminded me of a long-ago talk by J K Galbraith. (I searched out the transcript, it’s called The Economics of Deprivation: How To Get The Poor Off Our Minds. Community Care Fifth Annual Lecture, London, 24 January 1989.) I interrupted the second bit of reading to check the Galbraith stuff and, reading it, decided that how we get the poor off our minds today is by turning them into acronyms.

What I was reading that led me to this conclusion was a piece by Helen Epstein, a writer on AIDS. Telling the story of the political mileage that President Bush has got, and still gets, out of AIDS by ‘promising’ $15bn in 2003, Epstein uses some of the most appalling acronyms imaginable.

While purporting to help OVCs, orphans and vulnerable children, PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, spends most of its money in the US on development agency bureaucrats, consultants, medical expert workshops and funding anti-condom evangelists. Very little money reaches the OVCs, of whom there are some 12 million. Every cent of it that does, like all US aid, comes with tugs (I was going to write yanks but bravely forewent the pun) at the strings of power trust.

When I formulated, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the version of Smith’s First Law that says The World Bank gets more out of poverty than poverty gets out of The World Bank, I based it on experiences in Africa a decade or more ago. I had hoped that things had moved on, but no: PEPFAR needs OVCs more than OVCs need PEPFAR, far more. That’s clear.

What’s even clearer to me is that power flows out the end of an acronym.

Reference: The Lost Children of AIDS, Helen Epstein, NY Review of Books, 3 Nov 2005, page 41.

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