Just ask officials at George Mason University, who in March 2016 revealed a new name for their law school: the Antonin Scalia School of Law. The acronym ASSOL was mocked on social media, and the school was swiftly renamed the Antonin Scalia Law School. Officials with what is now called ASLS, who declined to comment, evidently weren’t concerned that the new abbreviation also refers to Advanced Stroke Life Support, audiology and speech-language sciences, the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, adult symptomatic lumbar scoliosis and the New York Library Association’s Academic and Special Libraries Section.
Other Washington-area schools face related situations. If you type GWU into a search engine, you’ll find George Washington University — as well as Gardner-Webb University and the Gambia Workers’ Union. The University of the District of Columbia shares UDC with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Utah Department of Corrections. JHU is Johns Hopkins University and Jathika Hela Urumaya, Sri Lanka’s National Heritage Party.
The problem, of course, goes well beyond higher education. When receptionists at the D.C. headquarters of the National Association of Theatre Owners answer the phone by saying “NATO” — at least, that is how they answered when I contacted them recently — callers could be forgiven for wondering if they’ve reached the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The theater group has embraced its nominal proximity to the other NATO. “Now if we only had an air force,” it blogged years ago, under the headline “Yes, we’re that powerful.”
There are countless other D.C.-based examples. The Architect of the Capitol operates the site aoc.gov, though Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is clearly the more famous AOC. The National Restaurant Association, meanwhile, shares initials with the slightly more controversial National Rifle Association. Mollie O’Dell, a spokeswoman for the restaurant group, says the NRAs are “so different in mission and purpose that confusion” around the abbreviations “rarely happens.” Then again, two years ago, her employer did have to correct the actor John Leguizamo, who directed a tweet criticizing gun violence at the National Restaurant Association Show — which, by the way, changed its Twitter handle from @NRAShow to @NatlRestShow in March 2018. (The change was for “consistent brand identity across all of our social platforms,” says O’Dell. “We wanted the show handle to have the same restaurant emphasis that our other handles do.”)
“Inevitably, both NRAs must learn to peacefully coexist,” says Rachel Bernard, a New York-based independent creative strategist who counts naming companies among her specialties. “Because there are only so many letter combinations it’s very difficult to trademark an acronym.” Companies hire people like Bernard to avoid naming confusion. For a typical client, she identifies 2,000 prospective names, then winnows that list to just a dozen or two, which she presents to the client — a rate lower than that of Harvard admissions. The discards include negative associations in other languages or on the slang website Urban Dictionary, as well as names and abbreviations that offend when articulated aloud, such as the time former colleagues of Bernard’s were prepared to greenlight a digital task force without considering the sexual implications of DTF.
The alphabet-soup problem has arguably grown worse in recent years. In our interconnected age, we are ever more likely to be exposed to businesses and organizations from other parts of the world. In years past, Bernard might have advised a client without, say, business interests in Poland that it was fine to use a name with negative Polish associations. But these days, social media latches on to this sort of thing quickly, and even localized brands need to worry about global associations. It’s increasingly rare, she says, to have a “totally clean” name.
Since search engines commonly return results in an order dictated by the number of hits they have received, they produce a hierarchy of popularity that some find infuriating. Naomi Baron, American University professor emerita of world languages and cultures, says her husband, a philosopher, gets angry at having to scroll through many references to the APA before landing on the American Philosophical Association. “The American Psychological Association gets all the hits because the APA style sheet is used by so many people,” she says. Between those and, depending on when you search, dozens of other APAs — including the American Payroll Association, the American Poultry Association and the American Poolplayers Association — it’s clear how abbreviations can become invitations for confusion.
At a personal level, smart communicators can anticipate looming confusion and avoid potentially confounding shorthand, says Geoffrey Pullum, professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh — but it takes extra mental energy to essentially read someone else’s mind. “We struggle on abbreviating for speed (‘Are you an AA member?’), blundering into confusion, and then digging ourselves out of trouble (‘No, sorry, I wasn’t assuming you’re an alcoholic! I meant do you belong to the Automobile Association in the UK!’),” he wrote in an email.
Many Washingtonians are loath to offer the clarification needed to clear up such confusion, says Baron. Maybe it’s laziness or maybe it’s simply utility, but the upshot is that sifting through abbreviations becomes just another chore informed citizens have to take on in our age of information overload. “We have to decide: Is it really the same entity that we are referring to? Sometimes context will disambiguate for us, and often it will not,” Baron says. “This is what the messy world of language is all about.”
Menachem Wecker is a writer in Washington.