Using Abbreviations

25 September 2020

Something I have always found annoying is the use of abbreviations without any explanation of their meaning. My favourite is itself a TLA (Three Letter Abbreviation). The company I used to work for had CSS, this being (for them) Customer Service System. Then later I learned much about how to create web pages for my business website and I was told about CSS, but in this instance these were Cascading Style Sheets! Another one from work, relating to the telephone service was NDT. So I knew this as meaning No Dial Tone, but chatting to an old RAF friend of mine I learned that to him it meant Non-Destructive Testing!

With all this Covid-19 business, I am now starting to see government statistics on Twitter and elsewhere and a mention was made of ‘MSOA data’. So we are now into four-letter abbreviations. Now you may be aware of this already, but Middle-layer Super Output Areas (MSOA) are part of a geographic hierarchy designed to improve the reporting of small area statistics in England and Wales. These are, from what my research has found, built from groups of contiguous Lower-layer Super Output Areas, so I guess that makes them LSOA. I have also found a web page that explains these delightful terms:

There’s also an awful lot more to this, all relating to Census data, which may be found on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) website, all I will say is that as I’ve said in a previous blog, the more we learn, the more we find there is to learn! But I do wish the person writing the article mentioning the MSOA data had taken the trouble to either explain the term or put a link in to where an explanation could be found and not presume that we would know what it was all about!

It is my guess that the writer would think that we might not understand such terms and in true ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’ style (as done in that excellent tv series ‘Yes, Minister’ & ‘ Yes, Prime Minister’) be so confused and not bother to find out. If we did, we might start asking questions, and that would not do at all!

As many of you know, I have more than a passing interest in photography as well as in computers. There are always people wanting to learn, but if we do not explain them, our use of abbreviations can make a person new to the subject feel like it is a ‘closed shop’ so they feel like they are not welcome. As a result, I try my best to say through the lens (TTL) metering, where light is measured directly through the lens of the camera as well as describing a single lens reflex (SLR) camera as one where the user can look through the viewfinder at the rear of the camera but typically uses a mirror and prism system (hence “reflex” from the mirror’s reflection) that permits the user to view through the lens and see exactly what will be captured. Folk hear the terms at the same time as their meanings.

It is just the same with computers, where you will probably know that CD refers to Compact Disc, CPU is Central Processing Unit and OS is Operating System, but there are so many, many more! If these terms are explained, newcomers may be more inclined to ask for more details and consider buying, rather than being put off.

Even so, I try not to feel embarrassed at not knowing! I am a fan of American Football and I have been for quite a few years, but I’m still very well aware as to how little I know about the game, the rules, player positions… The list of their abbreviations and codes seems endless! It is true that some of the terms we use are not timeless, one I can think of refers to the use of a hallucinogenic drug popular in the sixties and seventies, but the same term was also used to describe the currency of pounds, shillings & pence used here in the UK prior to the 15th of February 1971, when decimal currency was brought in.

I realise it depends who you are talking with, like knowing their knowledge level but a simple, polite question can save a great deal of misunderstanding. I try my best not to presume, but take the extra time to explain what an abbreviation means. I was taught to do this when the abbreviation was first used, as it would  make sense to the listener and would be  more likely that they would remember its meaning as well as its relevance.

So abbreviations have their place but they can add humour too. I am an avid fan of Star Trek and one character goes by the name of Spock. At one time, my job meant that I was the person others called on if they wanted to know about or had a problem with a certain computer system. I was therefore a Single Point Of Contact – I was SPOC! Entirely logical, in my view…

I’ll stop at this point with a question:
Can wearing an open-necked shirt be considered as a tie-break?

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