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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, November 7, 2014

The power of acronyms


Hmmm, what could that mean? Let me consult a dictionary. Oh, here it is. 

Bachelor of Divinity and Stipendiary Magistrate (in New Zealand). 

Sounds eminently respectable. Certainly no one should be fired for being a Kiwi theologian judge in their private life. And look, apparently there's a whole "community" (what a cozy word that is) of them out there.

"No, Katherine," you say, "you lexicographers don't get out enough."

This acronym has been much in the news here in Canada since disgraced CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi used it in his facebook apologia for his sexual practices, which have precipitated a full-blown Canadian sex scandal (to paraphrase The Beatles, these are words that don't go together well).

Just think, though, of the power of using an acronym (or technically, in this case, an initialism). First of all, it distances us from the actual meaning of the words represented only by their initials. "BDSM" certainly doesn't confront us with the same reality and shock value as using the words "bondage, discipline (or domination), sadism, and masochism" (see, I really did know what it stood for), let alone "tying women up and beating them but it's ok because I'm having sex with them TOO."

Secondly, using an acronym suggests that EVERYONE is so familiar with this that it doesn't need to be written out in full. BDSM, RCMP -- surely they both come equally trippingly off the tongue for your average Canadian. Isn't it just an everyday phenomenon? Certainly all the hip people don't have to have it explained to them. And if YOU don't know what it means, then clearly you're one of those boring types who are not "adventurous in the bedroom".

My advice to you is: when people resort to alphabet soup, they are often aiming at obfuscation or trying to pull the wool over your eyes. And you should resort to a snappy initialism of your own.



  1. Clever post indeed! I will happily admit to not being 'hip enough' to have recognised the acronym or should I say 'hit enough' to. A sad day for woman and men I'd say.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.