Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sudden and Complete Acronym Failure

Imagine, if you will, that you read a press release that begins with the following sentence, more or less.

The City of Fargo has installed a HAWK Beacon (High Intensity Activated Crosswalk Beacon) aid pedestrians in crossing 40th Avenue S by Centennial Elementary School.
A laudable effort, no doubt, and one that may save the lives of incautious children. I, however, reacted not to the concept of the light but to the apparent inability of the people who created this thing to understand acronyms.

For those of you who don't see the problem here, let me explain. An acronym is a “word” made up of the first letters of a much longer name for something. They're exceedingly useful in talking about government, for example, because the names of agencies can be quite a mouthful. They also take up a lot of room on a page. Once you've explained the origin of the acronym you can write or talk about it and your audience will still know what you mean.

You cannot, however, take random letters from the name of a thing and create an “word” that you like. Doing so means that there is no way someone who sees the acronym would ever guess what those words may be. They might as well have named it a GENERA Beacon, because those letters appear in that order as well. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) could just as well have been the NIN. The rules for making acronyms exist for a reason, you know.

What struck me even more strange was that HIAC sounds pretty high-tech and impressive, especially followed by the word beacon. HAWK gives me an impression of swooping and predation. Do I want small children crossing at the street where this HAWK stands, poised and ready? I'd rather a HIAC were watching out for their safety, sending out a beacon to drivers reminding them to be cautious. Wouldn't you?