TLAs and FLAs - but is what I hear what you really mean?

(September 05, 2012)

The English language has pretty flexible rules and this flexibility steadily increases. It is both malleable and ductile, attributes that aid communication. It also has enough mongrel tendencies and pronunciations to make it a hard language to master. That’s because it has evolved over thousands of years with many other languages mixed into its form.

However, increasingly ‘TLA-based’ slang proliferates - not words or phrases but often initially meaningless, three and four-letter acronyms. More commonly referred to as TLAs and FLAs – they flourished in the computing industry to shorten familiar, often repeated phrases. In those cases such verbal shorthand were useful but I would guess more fashion than expedience.

We may understand the context of many TLAs but what about their precise meaning?

Consider LEDs, most know they are little twinkling, coloured lights on the front of electrical and electronic devices. How many know or care that they are Light-Emitting Diodes. Some alarm clocks have LCD screens light green or dark green numbers and that’s good enough for most of us. These are Liquid Crystal Displays, great but what’s Liquid Crystal and who cares? We know that credit cards have a PIN. In case you care, it’s Personal Identification Number. Conversing in letters rather than words is not restricted to the electronics or computing industries. There’s BLT on a sandwich–bar menus, Bacon Lettuce and Tomato. The other day I came across SSC, apparently Smoked Salmon and Cheese, but the menu-board gave the uninitiated no other information.

TLAs used to confuse

One problem with all this verbal shorthand is those that use it to confuse, for example the nerd that reels them off in a rapid litany expecting you to comprehend every word - or TLA. Of course, the music industry, along with every other, has its own TLA (and sometimes two-letter) argot. LP and EP are ubiquitous, as is CD but a recent press release received at FolkWords defined the artists as mainstream R-P, which is apparently ‘retro-punk’ – a new one to me without an explanation. I would hazard a guess that most people recognise R&B but is A&R commonly understood? The function may be but does everyone know what the acronym means?

Then there’s the wonders of AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) somewhat like MP3 but an improved version if you believe its marketing hype; DRM (Digital Rights Management) failed software supposed to stop us sharing and copying digital music files; the good old MP3 (I bet not everyone will know this oneit’s Layer 3 of the MPEG format ‘Moving Picture Experts Group’. There’s also WAV (Waveform Audio File) high quality digital music file, which means don’t use MP3s to create CDs use WAVs instead you’ll sound better, and ramping up to an FLA there’s AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) broadly, Apple’s version of WAV. There are dozens of others.

All of this TLA/ FLA overload will not destroy English but they still irritate when used to confuse. So that's why every time someone (usually a spotty shop assistant) throws another one at me I can’t resist asking the perpetrator what it means.

I then experience a delightful case of ‘Schadenfreude’ as I relish the blank stare that comes into their eyes. Ah - so you don’t know either! 

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