New Straits Times, 25 Sept 1993: "OCD is OK but is it VFM?"


The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations: the abbreviations of the modern world explained—in full. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992.

review by Otto Steinmayer.

Well, the lit. ed. of the NST sent out this book and wanted rev. ASAP, etc., etc.; but it found the usual fate of being put off by me, et al., s.d. (=sine die). But we heard that he needed info PDQ, so I wind up this a.m. tapping the kybd. of the mac., trying to come up with the requisite k-bytes , to FAX or perhaps e-mail.

    Abbreviations go way back. In antiquity most public reading material was in the form of carving on stone. Greeks and Romans took every opportunity of eliminating letters that the alert reader could take for granted. Later, books were copied out on to vellum, prepared skin of calves or sheep, an expensive material, and medieval scribes tried to get as much as possible into a given space. That urge, and the crabbed handwriting monks and secretaries realized it in, commonly known as “olde English” or “gothic,” makes the reading of old papers work for specialists with stronger eyesight than mine.

    The ODA (or Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations) classifies abbreviations into five types. Acronyms are phony words built out of the first letters of several real words strung in a row, e.g. [exempli gratia = “for instance”] GATT, for “General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.” Initialisms are first letters of words strung together: SDI, for Strategic DefenseInitiative, more happily known as “Star Wars.” Shortenings are words clipped off after the first few letters, as in “Apr.” Symbols and signs consist of one, two or three letters standing for some common measurement or quality: g = “gram.” And hybrid forms are also phony words pasted together from the parts of others. e.g. MINDEF.

    It’s funny that abbreviations are not only phenomena of writing but also of natural speech. “Mob” began life in the 18th century as a shortening of “vulgus mobile,” sci. [=“you may understand”] “riot.” No person around here speaking Malay with friends hears his full name. Zulkifli passes for “Zul,” and even in Iban at home in the kampong I am briefly called ‘To.

    There’s no doubt that we badly need such reference books as a dictionary of abbreviations in the modern world. Abbreviations have proliferated to the point that they make up a big part of officialese. Anybody who has had to deal with government documents will complain to you over the Guinness about swimming in “alphabet soup.”

    Do we need them all? You could classify abbreviations according to the following scheme into the Necessary, the Unfortunately Necessary, the Cute and Handy, and the Cute and Repulsive. Nobody will quarrel about using “p.” for “page, “l.” for liter, and a little circle, “°” for “degree.” Chemists would be harassed indeed without “Na,” “H,” and “Xe,” letter writers without “USA” and “UK,” and businessmen without FOB, much more so without FAX. An abbreviation can be an expression of national pride, as when our government ordered the old “$” to be dropped in favour of the patriotic “RM.”

    Among the Unfortunately Necessary heading one could group such things as GATT, and SDI, abbreviations that stand for concepts that are simply too tediously complicated to explain each time in full, or are really too vague to deserve a proper name. These come and go.

    Plenty of abbreviations have happily entered the language under the Cute and Handy rubric. For example, “tv” makes a lot more sense than the bastard “television” (bastard because compounded out of one Greek and one Latin word). “Laser” is now so common that I doubt anyone who wasn’t a science nerd in high-school twenty-five years ago can tell you that it is made up from Light Amplification by StimulatedEmission of Radiation. The term “snafu” (= SituationNormal All F----d Up) stands likely to be the only acronym of World War 2 to survive that conflict, as a compact expression of the universal Law of Murphy.

    The less said about the Cute and Repulsive the better. MINDEF reminds me uncomfortably of 1984’s “MINIPEACE.” The most expressive under this head is the slimy acronym of a neighbouring country’s StateLaw and Order Restoration Council SLORC!—the sound a butcher-knife makes as it plunges into something particularly tender and gushy.

    The question is, not that one should or should have access to some dictionary of abbreviations—since we’ll all come across something more or less arcane sooner or later—but whether the dictionary under review is worth buying. How does one test such a collection of dizzying miscellany anyway? I tell you, and the method applies to dictionaries and reference works of every sort: Attack it by surprise! Think of a specialized word you use all the time, and see whether the compiler has got it right. A teenager might, in a dictionary that claims to be current and hip, look up “bad” to see if they know it actually means “good.”

    In this case I looked up several local abbreviations. Alas, the present ODA has MSA, “Malaysia-Singapore Airways” but not MAS. (This certainly dates them.) Under UMNO they say too optimistically: “United Malays (later Malaysia [!]) National Organisation.” There is no entry for KORPRI (Korp Pegawai Republik Indonesia), nor for KALBAR (Kalimantan Barat). British vehicle registration marks get a lavish two-page spread, while in order to find the postal abbreviation for an American or Canadian state (who wants to write out “Massachusetts” or “Saskatchewan” in full?), one must thumb through the entries.

    Nobody can be expected to be perfectly comprehensive when it comes to compiling a work like this. Most abbreviations, like slang, come and go. Specialists will always turn to their specialized reference works, medieval scholars to their Capelli, and people here to the government directory. People doing business with Indonesia, official or otherwise, will have to cope with that nation’s great fondness for hybrids.

    Yet the ODA is withal a passing useful reference book. It will go on the shelves and do its duty like a workman if not like a hero to anyone who consults it for basic information.