BROOKE GLADSTONE: The world is in a hurry. That's probably why the world's best-known word is an acronym. It began life in 1839 as a joke penned by an editor at The Boston Morning Post, a conscious misspelling of the phrase "all correct" – AKA, "okay." Did I say AKA? Did you notice? Americans are in such a hurry, we use lots of acronyms – PTA, SUV, CPR, NFL, NATO, NASA, NAFTA, NASDAQ. Actually, the first four are initialisms, since you can't really pronounce them as words, but we call them acronyms anyway.
We've used some of them so long, we've forgotten what they stand for – scuba, laser, TNT. But some will always remember, like POSSLQ, a person of the opposite sex sharing living quarters, spawned by the U.S. Census. The census, of course, is based in Washington, where being in a hurry is a matter of national security, so the Capitol is littered with acronyms.
The President of The United States is POTUS, the Supreme Court is SCOTUS, the State of the Union is SOTU, and the U.S. Patriot Act is the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism – Act. Take special note of that last one. It shows the public relations punch of a good acronym.
Just ask the mothers of MADD, the people of PUSH, or the CARE-ing Committee on American Relief in Europe. But P.R. is a relatively recent factor in acronym creation. The key components are urgency and bureaucracy and lots of arcane nomenclature.
The mother of all acronym generators resides near the Capitol, a five-sided supercollider that produces a steady explosion of letters, a veritable alphabet soup. No matter how many snafus the Pentagon encounters, it never goes AWOL. From MRE to RPG to IED to WMD, it specializes in unadorned initials for harsh realities.
But these days, P.R. is another weapon of war, and the civilian phrase-makers seem to be lacking reliable intelligence. Otherwise, why would they allow, or even perhaps help craft, the name of the new security crackdown in Iraq, launched this week by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? He calls it "Operation Imposing Law." Here's hoping they don't abbreviate.