Acronymomania

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Michael Newton has called attention to this Chinese sign on Twitter:



The Imgur photo was posted 9 months ago, and the associated Reddit thread does a pretty good job explaining the acronym, but — since this unpronounceable mass of majuscules has implications beyond this immediate instance — we might as well do a more systematic Language Log style reading and explication:

Běijīng Hǎidiàn Qū Rénmín Zhèngfǔ Jīguān Yòu'éryuán
北京海淀区人民政府机关幼儿园
Beijing Haidian District People's Government agencies kindergarten

No, BJHDQRMZFJGYEY is not their URL. This is their URL: http://www.hdzfjgyey.com/yzdh.asp

I used to see lots more of these long, breathless acronyms in China. The fact that they seem to be decreasing in number is one hopeful sign in the struggle against linguistic obscurantism in the People's Republic. Still the fact that they do persist, and even on a government sponsored sign like this one, raises significant questions:

1. For whom is the long acronym intended?

2. What purpose does it serve? Is it purely decorative? A feeble nod to cosmopolitanism?

3. Is it there to substitute for English?

4. Why do they give the capital letter of each syllable when it would be much more manageable and perhaps even more intelligible if they only included the capital letters of the beginnings of words?

If you do a Google search on "acronyms in China" (quotation marks not necessary), you will find that they are very popular, sometimes to avoid web censors, for the sake of brevity, to be fashionable or cute, and so forth. They fall into three main types: English expressions, Chinese expressions in pinyin romanization, and expressions in Chinese characters (some of the characters are dropped out — this is an extremely common way to form new words on the basis of longer terms, e.g., chéngfá jiàoyù 惩罚教育 ("punishment and education; punitive education") –> chéngjiào 惩教 ("correctional").

When all is said and done, one is left with the sinking feeling that the person(s) responsible for this acronymic monstrosity, BJHDQRMZFJGYEY, had their head in the wrong place and really had no clue about the function of acronyms in daily life.

[Hat tip to Ben Zimmer]

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10 Comments »

  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    To me, an acronym is a sequence of initials that can be pronounced as a word, e.g., NATO or radar. This is an initialism.

  2. Jeff R. said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    Anything can be pronounced as a word if you try hard enough, even Budge-head-quur-rimz-fu-jug-yay.

  3. leoboiko said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    @Ralph: Please don't. If you print the history of the HTML standards, 3/4 of the resulting paper pile would be flamewars about the distinction between 'abbreviation', 'acronym' 'initialism', and their set-theoretical relationship. The latest revision just threw its hands up and removed the <acronym> tag altogether, saying "goddamn it you guys, from now on just use <abbr> for everything".*

    * the account above may have been slightly exaggerated for rhetorical effect

    @Jeff: My school's official acronym/initialism/abbrev/whatever is "FFLCH", widely pronounced (in Portuguese) as [ fe.fe.'lɛ.ʃɪ ]. No one ever say it one letter a time, as one would for an init-… … a non-pronounceable sequence of letters (which would result in [ ˈɛ.fɪ ˈɛ.fi ˈɛ.lɪ se a.ˈɡa] ).

  4. Bobbie said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    Huh! The plant-ish symbol in the middle made me think it might be for an agricultural office. Silly me!

  5. Alec Sugar said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

    It seems that the Chinese have an insatiable love for acronyms. I've noticed many made of English words that become commonplace for (at least) mainlanders but unknown to non-sinophile English speakers… 'MV' for 'music video' comes to mind as an example. I imagine this might happen because the acronyms are less cumbersome to say than either the full English term or its Chinese translation (probably "音乐视频” in this case). Of course, as the author points out, 缩略语 abbreviating of Chinese terms is a productive process, but perhaps it's only preferred for terms more firmly established in Chinese (as opposed to recently translated).

  6. remuxa said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    I believe this is a common thing in Vietnamese as well, if only because the near-monosyllabic nature of the language is conducive to such initialisms.

  7. Rubrick said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    Come on, fhqwhgads!

  8. Lugubert said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

    The seal designer (and other similar creators) might just think that the readers have the same input shortcuts, so that keyboarding the mess would automatically supply the correct full name. On a smaller scale, I'd guess for example that a majority of people who use computer input by pinyin have taught their systems that BJDX is Beijing Daxue (Beijing University).

  9. Josh said,

    September 2, 2014 @ 8:15 pm

    I don't know, I remember these from the 1990s, when few people were typing…I don't think it's an input thing. They used to be all over the trains. And there are also the signs that have Chinese on top and run-on pinyin beneath it. (Who is that for? It helps neither those who speak Chinese, nor those who do not. I found it helpful when learning Chinese, but that can't be the purpose!) I do think "cosmopolitanism" accounts for a lot of it; on the same note, one often hears announcements in incomprehensible English in contexts where there are few or no foreigners. The function seems sometimes to be to "provide English" because it gives a fancy or international impression to the public at large, rather than to provide English that anyone who doesn't speak Chinese could understand.

  10. Brian said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 7:32 pm

    Is it just me or is there something funny with the spacing between letters? When I read it I see
    BJHDQ R MZFJGYEY
    with the "R" a separate "word" — which makes no semantic sense.

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