Acronym Crazy


There’s an acronym for everything. Well, almost everything. Acronym Finder has a database of over 200,000 acronyms, many of which serve multiple purposes. And the list is growing—TLIG. (Yes, I made that up . . . IMTU.)

The funny thing about acronyms is that they attract logophobes (people who dread words) and logophiles (people who love words). GF. (That’s “go figure.”) And since logophobes and logophiles are very different creatures, it would be unwise to adopt the acronym “LP” for both. Besides, LP is already taken.

Acronyms do come in handy. Often they are easier to say or remember than the phrases they abbreviate. Those that have a standard use are considered words in their own right, with their own entries in the main catalog of any good dictionary. The ideal acronym is pronounceable: NATO, AIDS, UNESCO. But a host of second-class acronyms aren’t pronounceable, even though we forget that they aren’t—for example, BBC, KGB, and DVD. An unpronounceable acronym achieves a kind of elite status when its written form is no longer accompanied by periods after each letter. So U.S.A. has by now been elevated to USA. Acronyms that are both pronounceable and normally written in lower case letters are truly special; they look like they’ve always been words: laser, radar, and snafu come readily to mind (if you happen to be consulting the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., for its entry on “acronym”).

Some of the most familiar acronyms stand for phrases that many people can’t recollect, or never even knew, as suggested by the following hypothetical, but easily imagined, conversation.

Ed: I work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Fred: Never heard of it.

Ed: Have you heard of NASA?

Fred: Of course. Why do you ask?

By now you’re probably wondering, “Is the word ‘acronym’ an acronym for anything?” The answer is yes, sort of. There are two reasons for the qualification. First, “acronym” is a word in its own right, and was before it was “acronymized” (which, I stipulate, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable). This is a case of reverse acronymization, you might say. Second, there isn’t much demand for the acronym “acronym.” But there are some smarty-pants uses of “acronym” as an acronym. For these, check out Acronym Finder.

Acronym Finder isn’t just fun and games. If you ever forget what “ATM” stands for, and you have an urge to close that memory loop, AF is the tool to turn to. Be careful what you ask for, though. I blithely entered my name: D-O-U-G. Turns out this is an acronym with a single definition: “Dumb Old Utility Guy.” Maybe this blog post proves the point.

[Footnote: “Acronym” is not to be confused with “anacronym.” “Anacronym” isn’t a word, but it should be. In my own private lexicon it means “a word or phrase that has become obsolete.” Some acronyms are so popular that the words or phrases they represent are, in precisely this sense, anacronyms.]

Disillusioned Professor Comes to Grips with ‘The Visitor’


He has the perfect name and the ideal job for portraying upper-middle-class disillusionment. Walter Vale is a literature professor at a reputable university in the Northeast. He’s no longer capable of enduring day-to-day encounters with students, and he’s embarked on a sabbatical during which he only pretends to be writing his next book. Will those who see the film The Visitor be able to relate to Walter’s dysphoric existence? Yes, because the role is performed by Richard Jenkins.

“Richard who?” The folks at Back Stage West must have been thinking the same thing. In this week’s issue, Jenelle Riley describes how a “blue-collar actor” like Jenkins (who’s never played a lead role in television or film) can lead in every scene of a low-budget indie film and launch it to nationwide screening. When BSW arrived in today’s mail, I was pleased to see a cover story about this actor, and about this film.

I saw The Visitor when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I recognized Jenkins, but couldn’t place him. The Riley essay explains why. But I liked him, and I liked this film because of him. He was funny, in that way that only the wearing malaise of life experience can make a thoughtful person funny. When the film ended, writer-director Tom McCarthy fielded questions from the audience. He was good. But Richard Jenkins stole the show.

This film is supposed to be about how injustices can accrue in the treatment of illegal immigrants. It could even be said that The Visitor is making an argument that at least some illegal immigrants should be granted amnesty. Many viewers will find themselves reflecting on this possibility. But the movie is just as much about how a man like Walter can get a new lease of life through his encounter with the unexpected, even if things still don’t turn out the way he would like.

The film begins and ends brilliantly. Walter is a serious man in a serious funk, who teaches us to lighten up a little. The Visitor opens April 11 in a platform release (that is, in a handful of theaters to generate buzz). This is one I’ll be seeing again.

Footnote: You’ll enjoy this film more if you don’t see the trailer first.

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