Management A great intellectual exercise

Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Buzz

I’ve been browsing Dive Into Mark’s “30 Days to a More Accessible Weblog” and came across a great intellectual exercise.

His Day #17 entry “Defining Acronyms” listed 51 acronyms and abbreviations that he’d recently used. They were:

ADA, ALT, AOL, API, CGI, CMS, CSS, CTRL, DMV, DNS, DTD, EFF, FAQ, FSF, GFDL, GIA, GPL, HTML, IE, IIRC, IIS, IO, KB, KDE, LONGDESC, MB, MSDN, MSN, MT, Mac, NC, OPML, P2P, PGDN, PGUP, PBS, PDF, PONUR, RSS, RU, SOAP, SSN, TDD, US, VNC, W3C, WCAG, WYSIWYG, Win, XHTML, XML.

(Yes, I know he says there are 50… there are 51… I can count… Mark can’t.)

The exercise was this: Given this rather tech-centric list, how do they various acronym look-up sites do? I picked three sites: Google, Acronym Finder, and Acronym Search. I made up the rule that I would give the site a point for a correct definition if the acronym showed up on the first result page.

Acronym Finder: 90%

Google Glossary: 71%

Acronym Search: 73%

Random observations:

– This is not really an apple to apple comparison. I’m assuming that Google is building the glossary list based on their crawls of the web whereas the other two sites specialize in this sort of thing and accept submissions to improve their data set. This is a back handed compliment to Google since without really specializing in acronyms, they fared pretty good against a specialized site.

– Nobody knew what GFDL stood for – according to Mark it stands for GNU Free Documentation License. Strangely enough, the Google front page point straight to the thing which is odd. Knowing nothing about how Google creates it’s glossary, I would’ve assumed they would’ve mined popular search results for acronyms.

– Nobody knew what IO stood for, either… including myself. A regular Google search didn’t find Mark’s definition either “Instant Outlining”. This observation makes a valuable point regarding acronyms. They usually start at as time saver for some collection of people who ARE REALLY TIRED OF TYPING INTERNATIONALIZATION AND WOULD PREFER TO TYPE I18N. Problem is, the context which makes the word meaningful doesn’t travel around with the world with it, so you end up needing glossaries or acronym finders. I still don’t know what Instant Outlining is, but it’s probably important to Mark and his clan. (Note: this probably applies to other unknowables such as PONUR)

– Here’s the list of words Acronym Finder knew that Google did not: ADA, CMS, OPML, PGDN, PGUP, RU, VNC, WCAG (wow), and Win (probably too common of word). Yes, some of these words are abbreviations and not acronym. SAME DIFFERENCE IN MY BOOK.

– Acronym Search didn’t know what XHTML stood for. That’s our dumbshit award for the contest.

Why all this energy regarding acronyms, Rands? Well, it’s not really acronyms that I’m concerned about, it’s glossaries. Being in high tech, I’m inundated with a steady stream of acronyms, abbreviations and buzzwords. We geeks love to create them because we essentially like to build stuff and IT AIN’T REAL STUFF UNTIL IT’S GOT A GOOD ACRONYM OR CODE NAME.

Unfortunately, these words confuse people. They lack context until they reach critical mass and that means corporations are ultimately losing money because they’re people aren’t able to talk to each other. PLEASE GET THE P39 QA’ED ASAP BEFORE ROGER LANDS HIS XHTML BRANCH OR WE’LL ALL BE SOL.

I’m sure many companies already do this, but I’d recommend that any largish project should have an accompanying glossary of terms. This is living document which draws the lines between the buzzwords and the content. Yes, it will take extra time to generate this document and, yes, it will always be out-of-date, but some data is better than none.

(ps. oh yeah, Mark’s idea to use the acronym tag is a good one. Do it.)