Alan Ralph

Wearer Of Many Hats

Attack of the TLAs

Jeremy Keith:

I think my co-workers are getting annoyed with me. Any time they use an acronym or initialism—either in a video call or Slack—I ask them what it stands for. I’m sure they think I’m being contrarian.

The truth is that most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the letters stand for. And I’ve got to that age where I don’t feel any inhibition about asking “stupid” questions.

But it’s also true that I really, really dislike acronyms, initialisms, and other kinds of jargon. They’re manifestations of gatekeeping. They demarcate in-groups from outsiders.

Three-letter acronyms (TLAs) and their ilk have been around for a long time, and I’ve encountered a lot more over my lifetime than I’d like. I have particularly vivid memories of all the TLAs I had to grapple with during my time as a software developer working with DOS and various versions of Windows, plus a load more I came across as a tech support / sysadmin managing a network of Windows machines plus a server running Small Business Server 2003.

As Jeremy mentions, it can quickly become normalised within a group of people working on similar things. But it has also spread more widely thanks to social media, in particular Twitter with its limits on message length.

I’ve come across web pages that have supposedly been written for non-experts, where acronyms have been mentioned without any explanation on the page. I realise that content management systems might not make it easy to do, but HTML has supported a means of communicating acronyms or abbreviations since the early days, so it really shouldn’t be that hard!

This has gotten me thinking, I’m certain that my Pinboard bookmarks probably have a lot of acronyms as tags — I will make more effort to avoid those in future.



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