Of all the think tanks in all the world, the one with the most creative name may be the London-based Acronym Institute. A dovish outfit that specializes in defense issues, Acronym's name comes from its subject matter: It's hard to think of a field that grows more acronyms than the study of war and weaponry. We're talking here, after all, about folks who work for the likes of NATO and CINCPAC and deal every day with things like CTBT (the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and NPT (the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).
But the military doesn't have a monopoly on letter-based naming. The new communications technologies love stringing letters together, too. And if high tech creates new problems with acronyms and less mellifluous initials, it is also creating solutions for the new millennium. The Web is full of acronym-busting sites that decode and thus detoxify the world of metastasizing letters. Some of the sites I'm about to mention have addresses so long they'd eat this whole column. But you can find them by searching the word "acronym" in your favorite search engine.
One of the best sites was created at University College Cork in Ireland, in which you learn that the AAA isn't just the American Automobile Association or the New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act. There are lots of other triple A's, including the American Accounting Association, the American Ambulance Association and the American Anthropological Association. Not to mention antiaircraft artillery and the rating of the top minor league teams.
But it doesn't stop with AAA. There are also three AAAAs, an AAAAA (the American Association Against Acronym Abuse), and its sister organization, the AAAAAA, the Association for the Alleviation of Absurd Acronyms and Asinine Abbreviations. Even if that's just a joke, it's a good one -- and it is there on the Web site.
Down at the other end of the alphabet, you find ZMRI, the Zinc Metals Research Institute, and ZPRSN, the Zurich Provisional Relative Sunspot Number.
The federal government's NOAA -- that's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- runs a helpful site on acronyms in its area. My favorite is VORTEX, the Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio site teaches you the letters of global warming: TAPs aren't playing that somber song for the planet -- they're Technical Advisory Panels trying to prevent the end. And you gotta love QUERLO, also known as Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Objectives.
Which brings me to FBOs, and an invitation I offered some months ago to readers of this column to come up with a new word to refer to those faith-based organizations that do so much social good. If George W. Bush or Al Gore ever doubts there's interest out there for their ventures in this area, I've got a large stack of letters and e-mails proving that a lot of people care and think creatively about this subject.
Some readers think FBO is, in fact, the right term. Although "awkward," writes Lorna Worley of Lorton, it is "descriptive and sufficiently broad to cover most situations."
James Gibbons of Houston and Lee Blue of Darnestown both opt for the simple Religious Organizations. As Mr. Gibbons writes: "The `faith' obviously refers to faith in God, Providence, whatever." I love that whatever.
Roger Gilkeson of Washington thinks we should refer to Compassionate Action Networks, but notes that since compassion is a favorite Bush term, Gore might like "Altruistic Action Groups, shortened to Altruaction Groups," or the more hip Community Altruism Nets. Mr. Gilkeson has a future in PR.
Bridget Brown of Silver Spring suggests FIG (Faith-Inspired Groups) or RIG (Religiously Inspired Groups). Dot Brown of Silver Spring likes CHA, as in Caring Humane Assistance organizations. Betty Geiger of Alexandria proposes DIO, as in Divinely Inspired Organizations. Thomas Flesher of Washington suggests Religious Affiliated Organizations (RAO) or Religious Social Concerns Organizations (RSCO). Anne Overall of Laurel likes GLO, as in God-Loving Organizations.
Stephanie Dobbs of Woodbridge likes HBO, Human Bonding Organizations, but worries about patent and trademark problems with a certain cable channel. Priscilla Dunenfeld of Berlin, Md., backs Ethics-Based Groups. Both HBO and EBG share the same benefits and problems: They cover a lot of groups, but don't mark out the specifically religious ones.
Personally, I think Mr. Gilkeson's ideas will work their way into speeches, and I was much taken by FIG, RIG and RSCO. The one thing I'm sure of: Saint James was right when he wrote that faith without works is dead, and, as all my respondents made clear, acronyms without works are even deader.
What's the word? If you have suggestions or other ideas, write to Chatter, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail email@example.com. Include your name, address and telephone number. E.J. Dionne will credit contributions he uses.