The pleasures of recursive acronymy

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The latest xkcd:

(As usual, click on the image for a larger version.)

For those unfamiliar with the meta-ness of Douglas Hofstadter, a good starting place would be his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach — particularly the dialogue between Achilles and The Genie (pp. 103-126), wherein The Genie reveals that "GOD" is an acronym for "GOD Over Djinn." And then you could move on to Metamagical Themas, his collection of essays written for Scientific American in the early '80s — including "Lisp: Recursion and Generality" (Apr. 1983), in which he uses the programming language Lisp to explore not just recursive acronyms but mutually recursive acronyms. (See the Wikipedia page on recursive acronyms for many non-Hofstadterian examples.)

And to further appreciate the self-referentiality of the acronymic sentence (and the hover-over sentence), check out "Implicitly and Explicitly Self-Referential Sentences" in GEB (pp. 495ff) and his two-parter in MT, "On Self-Referential Sentences" (Jan. 1981) and "Self-Referential Sentences: A Follow-up" (Jan. 1982). (Many of the specimens created by Hofstadter and his contributors are collected here.) I have a feeling a large portion of xkcd readers share my nerdy love for these essays, which made a big impression on me as a wee lad.

I should mention, though, that all of these works by Hofstadter were written before meta became a popular adjective, defined by the OED as "designating or characterized by a consciously sophisticated, self-referential, and often self-parodying style, whereby something (as a situation, person, etc.) reflects or represents the very characteristics it alludes to or depicts." The earliest example given by the OED is from 1988, in a meta explanation of meta-ness appearing in The New Republic. William Safire wrote about it in a 2005 On Language column:

Rarely do any of us in the language dodge find it possible to salute a lexicographer who was prescient about a linguistic development a full generation in advance. In an article in The New Republic of Sept. 5, 1988, titled "Meta Musings," David Justice, then editor for pronunciation and etymology at Merriam-Webster, was quoted as saying, "Meta is currently the fashionable prefix." The writer, Noam Cohen, added: "He predicts that, like retro – whose use solely as a prefix is so, well, retro – meta could become independent from other words, as in, 'Wow, this sentence is so meta.' If so, you heard it from me first."

(For more on meta, particularly as used in the quip "Anything you can do, I can do meta," see here and here.)



  1. Rodger C said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    Marginally relevant: "Metamagical Themas" is an anagram of "Mathematical Games," Martin Gardner's column that Hofstadter's replaced.

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    At some point in the late 1960's I had the idea of forming the Action Council on Repudiating Obscure Nomenclature in the Youth Movement.

  3. Ben said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

    Reminds me of a long-ago Dilbert comic where Dilbert is working on the TTP project (where TTP stood for The TTP Project).

  4. Faldone said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    Back when Metamagical Themas took over from Mathematical Games I used to imagine its successor, Megathematic Salami, but that had an extra I.

  5. Ray Girvan said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    I've been looking at "Metamagical Themas" / "Mathematical Games" / "Megathematic Salami" trying to find some synoym of "wank" or "Onan". Much as I sincerely like Hofstadter's work, this just goes too far. There's a point where language play becomes meaningless fiddling-for-its-own-sake. Sorry if this is reactionary, but I'm getting middle-aged.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    The other recursive acronyms that come readily to my mind are specific to the computer-geek subculture of several decades ago (which was not my subculture, but one of which i was anthropologically aware), viz: MUNG = MUNG Until No Good; and GNU = GNU's Not Unix (or should that be UNIX?). I hypothesize that this is because recursion was a phenomenon of some real-world significance if you were writing software? (Goedel Escher Bach is on my fairly long list of books I loved in high school that it seems a bad idea to revisit, somewhere between the Tao of Physics and Frazier's Golden Bough.)

  7. josephine said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

    @Ray Girvan

    meat amalgam itches?

    – jo

  8. Marc said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    GEB made a big impression on me in high school as well. On one of my college applications, I was asked to write a short essay about a quote that I felt represented an important aspect of my personality. I wrote, perhaps unwisely:

    "This quote describes its author well."

    I was not admitted.

  9. Scott Underwood said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 12:25 am

    Hofstadter's 2007 book "I Am a Strange Loop" is a follow-up to the central ideas of self-reference in GEB; the title could also be restated as "'I' Is a Strange Loop" (referring to the self-referential nature of consciousness).

    My favorite bit of DH self-reference is Hofstadter's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law."

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 3:06 am

    @ J W Brewer: Not just decades ago. The abbreviation (not strictly an acronym) "HTK" stands for "HMM Tool Kit", where "HMM" stands for "Hidden Markov Models". There must be dozens of these.

  11. David said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 3:41 am

    If you are a Douglas Hofstadter fan, check out the CD "Piano Music" he published more than a decade ago, with 31 original compositions. No too much self-referentiality there, but the music is interesting, and shows the amount of wide-ranging creativity that he possesses.

    I'm not sure if the CD is still in print, but you might find a copy in a library.

  12. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    I'd think that LL fans who are also DH fans would have a particular interest in his Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language which is principally (though not exclusively) concerned with the problems of translation.

    @J.W. Brewer, comparing GEB with The Tao of Physics? Please. I think if you revisited GEB today, you'll find it holds up.

    Not to mention that simply because something was influential and beloved during one's youth certainly does not require that it be juvenile. Indeed, many of the greatest books ever written are comprehensible and enjoyable to, and influential upon, young people and yet, when one revisits them many years later, deep in adulthood, one realizes just how much more is there that one missed because one was too young to apprehend it.

    And if a beloved work does turn out to be tripe when understood from a mature perspective, I'd expect that it's better to have the intellectual courage to accept that this is so as opposed to remaining ignorant because it's more comfortable.

  13. jmmcd said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    @Bob Ladd

    That's not recursive!

    @Ray Girvan

    The one thing Hofstadter's fiddling *isn't* is "for-its-own-sake".

  14. Rubrick said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    In honor of Hofstadter, I've written the rest of this comment on a

  15. MikeM said,

    June 29, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

    rootlesscosmo, you might want to join my Committee for the Abolition of Contrived Acronyms

  16. J. Goard said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 12:51 am


    Le Ton Beau de Marot is one of my very favorite books. It even becomes somewhat Nabokovian, as Hofstadter works through the loss of his wife and gives funhouse-mirror glimpses (translations, if you will) of a brilliant and strange personality.


    Well, your sentence doesn't actually "describe" you, although it certainly provides interesting and useful evidence about you. Given that, I'd probably have rejected you, too. :-/

  17. Acilius said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned this one: "The 'B.' in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stands for 'Benoit B. Mandelbrot.'"

  18. Axl said,

    July 1, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

    It appears xkcd is on a mission to get mentions in LL. See today's.

  19. David Walker said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 11:53 am

    Re: re-reading books that one loved as a youth: I have thought about re-reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull; if I do, I certainly hope it holds up.

  20. David Justice said,

    November 13, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    More from Mr. Meta here:

  21. David Justice said,

    January 22, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    Hi, I'm the David Justice of the Safire article. And I have coined a wonderful new "meta-" word for everyone to use (for an appropriate fee, ahem ahem):
    Tell your moms !

  22. David Justice said,

    March 6, 2013 @ 10:36 am

    More “meta” musings, from the linguist known as Metapenguin:

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