WORDS THAT STICK IN AN AGE OF DISTRACTION
A writer on the FT’s Lex column once memorably used the acronym PIGS to describe the economic woes of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, in an item headlined Pigs In Muck.
As the paper’s then editor, Lionel Barber, later wrote in his memoir, The Powerful And The Damned, this provoked outrage. Readers accused the paper of sinking to the level of The Sun and Daily Mirror, while the Spanish embassy in London complained that “pig” was one of the most pejorative terms in the Spanish language.
Alas for the embassy, the Pigs have endured, probably for the same reason acronymic behaviour has engulfed, of all places, Washington DC: It produces memorable, catchy words that stick in an age of distraction.
Back when I worked in Washington, more than 20 years ago, members of Congress tended to introduce Bills with the dull, sober titles you see in legislatures around the world.
Since then, Capitol Hill has become a hotbed of the reverse-engineered acronym known as the “backronym”.
Thus the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or Cares Act, was followed by Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors, or Chips, and the Crook Act (Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy).
Captivating analysis by a writer on the Atlantic magazine last year showed about 10 per cent of Bills and resolutions introduced in the previous two years had backronym names, up from roughly one in 20 a decade earlier and less than 1 per cent in the late 1990s.
The thing about these names is that they manage to achieve what so many abbreviations do not: Instant understanding. The world would not be a better place without them. If only we could say the same about every one of their ilk.