Saturday, August 31, 2002

Accursed acronyms
R.K. Murthi

ACRONYMS have never been my favourite. I suspect this dislike goes back to the time when I was at school. About a kilometre away from our sprawling house lay the railway station. Here, I would go every Sunday to watch the train whistle its way into the platform. The bogies would crawl in like a wriggling caterpillar before grinding to a stop.

One day, driven by the sort of foolish courage that belongs to the very young, I peeped into the grand high-ceiling room that housed the Station Superintendent, S.S. for short, and was truly awed by his uniform and the proud I-am-the-monarch-here look in his eyes. Suddenly, he spotted me and screamed, "Get out. This is the place for A Station Superintendent. Not for an ass". That struck a bell in me. I burst out, "But, Sir, is not ASS short for a Station Superintendent?" The man came charging at me like an elephant. That I am alive to recollect that encounter is enough proof that I survived the onslaught. Of course, the official tracked down my parentage, complained to my father and fetched me a couple of sharp cuffs where it hurt the most.


May be the hurt I endured then made me hate acronyms. And I didnít touch them even with the longest of long poles till I got a job and found myself drawn into the proceedings of a conference of nations held at New Delhi to improve trade and, thus, foster development. I learnt that the acronym for this meet, organised by the United Nations, was UNCTAD. Much hope was pinned on the deliberations of the meet. Many developing nations demanded that the rich nations of the West loosen their purse strings and gave liberally to fund development project and also remove trade barriers so that the developing nations could export their products and earn valuable foreign exchange. These hopes got drowned in the endless debates which I sneer at as verbiage. The delegates indulged in idiomatic hairsplitting. They never got down to any decision. A smart journalist discovered, after watching the proceedings that UNCTAD, that the acronym stood for Under No Circumstances, Take A Decision.

I stumbled on two acronyms while listening to scientistsóthe ISRO and the Atomic Energy Commission. Mouse, in space research, is acronym for Minimal Orbital Unmanned Satellite of the Earth; Scram denotes Safety Control Rod Axe Man. (At every nuclear reactor there is a man with an axe who cuts off the ropes of the cadmium rods in the event of danger).

Utter confusion, you say. That is not unexpected. One may say that where acronyms abound, confusion is the fall out. That conclusion is confirmed by the experience of a young army officer. (Later he rose to be the rank of Chief of the Indian Army. I have in mind the late Gen Thimmayya). In 1926, he was a subaltern. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry at Bangalore. Everyone addressed him as Ulia. He was taken aback. Ulia was not his name. Why then did they use that name? He decided to find out.

The next day, he met Capt Ross-Skinner, the adjutant. Thimmayya told him, "Sir everyone calls me Ulia."

"Isnít that your name?" the adjutant asked.

"Definitely not."

The adjutant reached out for a file, turned the pages till he spotted a telegram that intimated the posting of the young officer to the unit and read out the message: "2nd Lt K.S. Thimmayya Ulia had been posted to the HLI. He would be reporting shortly."

Suddenly light dawned on Thimmayya.

"Sir, ULIA stands for Unattached List, Indian Army."

Both of them had a hearty laugh.

From the British army circles come another story, where a soldier gave a new interpretation to the slang word SOB and worked his way out of trouble. He had a slanging match with a JCO. In the heat of the moment, he called his senior a SOB.

"How dare you call me a SOB?" the JCO fumed in anger.

"Because you are one," the loud mouth refused to back down.

"I shall report it to our unit commander."

"Go and tell God, you SOB," the soldier looked totally unconcerned.

The victim of the abuse took the matter to his senior. The soldier was sent for. He walked in, saluted his senior and waited.

"I have a complaint against you," the officer growled.

The man didnít say a word.

"Did you hear me?" the officerís voice boomed.

"Yes, Sir."

"Did you call JCO Smith a SOB."

"Yes, Sir."

"Do you know that the term is an abuse?"

"Abuse? I think it is an honour, Sir."

"This is no place for jokes," the officer roared like an enraged lion.

"It is no joke, sir," the soldier stood his ground.

"Better explain. Otherwise you are in for deep trouble."

"But I can explain, sir. I may even say that you too are a SOB. So is the Chief of the Army."

"Thatís the stupidest statement that I have ever heard,: the officer started wondering whether the man had gone off the rocker.

"But it makes perfect sense, sir. SOB stands for Soldier Of Britain."

"Get the hell out of here, man. With that meaning to the acronym, I canít take any action against you, you rogue," the officer waved his hand, making great efforts to check the laughter that seemed ready to break out.

How shall we land back from such flights of fancy with acronyms? Then we remember the acronyms from the world of air travel. Let us hop on board the acronyms provided by magazine over fifteen years back, have a merry spin before the fancy loses power and the flight returns to land: ALITALIA ó Always late in take-off; always late in arrival, PANAM ó Pilots are normally all maniacs, QANTAS ó Queer and nasty; try another service, TWA ó Try walking across, IA ó Inform Allah, AI ó Allah informed, PIA ó Please inform Allah.