Take a close look. This is the original Alphabet Soup.
It’s is a kind of soup containing noodles shaped like the letters of the Latin alphabet. According to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, it comes as a prepared, canned vegetable soup with letter-shaped noodles. Read full Wikipedia entry
Metaphorically, alphabet soup means “an abundance of abbreviations or acronyms”. In this sense, the term goes back at least as far as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet agencies of the New Deal (1933-38). In the United States, the Federal Government is described as an ‘alphabet soup’ on account of the multitude of agencies that it has spawned, including the NSA, CIA, FBI, USSS, BATF, DEA and INS.
But Uncle Sam’s expertise in making alphabet soups has been challenged by another entity – the United Nations. (Interestingly, Roosevelt was an architect of the UN, and coined the term with Winston Churchill). The UN’s propensity for enriching the alphabet soup has few parallels.
In the early 1990s, when I was earning a living as a UN consultant in Asia, I had to wade through the sea of acronyms and abbreviations as part of my daily bread. Funnily enough, some high-level peddlers of arconyms no longer even remembered what they stood for!
The UN has enriched the alphabet soup even more in the years since. MDG is a current favourite – it stands for Millennium Development Goals, a blue print for achieving basic socio-economic development by 2015.
It’s not just the UN, but the entire development community that is in love with coining abbreviations and then liberally bandying them about. Some are manageable. Others are unpronounceable tongue-twisters. PLWHA comes to mind – that stands for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS.
And then there are too many meanings or expansions for the same abbreviation, causing confusion to those who don’t know the context. ICT is a good example. We in media and development circles use it to mean Information and Communications Technologies. But the Wikipedia shows at least another two dozen meanings for the same three letter combination!
Journalism taught me to explain every technical term and abbreviation when introducing it. I still do, but on the whole I avoid abbreviations if we can help it.
But I have to watch out. A colleague reminded me recently that I’ve been happily coining inhouse acronyms myself. Examples:
GBR – The Greenbelt Reports (Asian TV series)
STP – Saving the Planet (Asian regional project and upcoming TV series)
D4C – Digits4Change (Asian TV series)
Does this make me a minor chef in expanding the Alphabet Soup?
Maybe it does! If I can’t beat ’em, I’ll join ’em….