Episode 4: Backronyms

August 10, 2016

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Episode 4: Backronyms (Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast)
U.S. Department of Energy
Transcript: 

(SHOW INTRO PLAYS, MIX OF VOICES AND MUSIC)

(PIANO AND VIOLIN MUSIC)

MATT DOZIER: Hi everyone, and welcome to Direct Current -- an Energy.gov Podcast, I’m Matt Dozier.

ALLISON LANTERO: And I’m Allison Lantero.

DOZIER: And this week, we’re tackling a topic that might sound really boring at first -- but stick with us -- government acronyms. Actually, a special kind of acronym: the backronym. But more on that later.

LANTERO: Now, we all know that the federal government is chock-full of acronyms. From well-known ones like NASA, the FBI, CDC, to obscure programs you’ve never heard of, there’s an acronym for pretty much everything.

DOZIER: Sometimes, they serve a purpose -- for instance, it’s a lot easier to say “NASA” than the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration” if you talk or write about space on a regular basis.

LANTERO: But a lot of the time, they are just plain baffling. At their worst, they can make it hard to understand how the government works & what it does. Our website, energy.gov, actually used to be doe.gov, which was confusing, because there’s another DOE in the government -- the Department of Education.

DOZIER: So, why are there so many of these acronyms? To try and make sense of this bureaucratic alphabet soup, I called Kelly Smith.

KELLY SMITH: My name is Kelly Smith, and I am the librarian for U.S. government information and urban studies and planning at UC San Diego.

DOZIER: Kelly manages the GovSpeak acronym guide.

SMITH: GovSpeak is basically just a list of acronyms and abbreviations that are used by the federal government to identify departments, offices, programs, publications, databases, that kind of thing. It currently includes 3,850 or so acronyms, although some of those are no longer in use and some are used for more than one entity.

(SOFT PIZZICATO VIOLIN MUSIC)

DOZIER: So you said 3,850, roughly, acronyms. How did you catalogue all of those acronyms?

SMITH: (LAUGHS) Well I started out about 16 years ago when I was at the IUPUI Library --

DOZIER: That’s IUPUI -- Indiana University-Purdue University In-Indianapolis. That’s a real mouthful.

LANTERO: It really is. That’s why they call it IUPUI. (LAUGHS)

SMITH: And in its original version there were -- oh, maybe -- four or five hundred entries. And I’d started that list basing it on the list of acronyms published in the U.S. government manual, which comes out annually. And then I began kind of just scouring the web to augment the list. It’s also not that uncommon for federal employees to contact me directly with suggestions to add to the list.

DOZIER: So you get hot tips.

SMITH: Right, exactly. Yes.

DOZIER: Maybe a better question is, why catalogue all these acronyms?

SMITH: (LAUGHS) Well, I think the overarching goal is probably the same goal of every librarian, which is to help people find information. And working for the government, you know that it’s a very complex structure and it can be nearly impossible for the average person searching the web to find that information. And since I receive -- and have received for many years now -- questions from the public about government acronyms, it seemed like a worthwhile project.

DOZIER: So has this been a one-woman effort then, for pretty much this whole time, or do you have help?

SMITH: It’s just me. It has become one of those, kind of, labor of love endeavors. And it’s something that I actually enjoy doing.

DOZIER: So, why do you think there’s so many government acronyms?

SMITH: You know, I don’t know that I’m particularly qualified to answer that question, but my guess is that it’s probably no different from any other profession or industry. I think most of us -- regardless of the field that we work in -- have lingo and terminology that’s unique to our fields.

DOZIER: Right. But since the federal government is taxpayer-funded and is supposed to be open and transparent, you see it as a -- maybe a civic duty to help catalogue these and make it more clear and easily understandable in terms of all the acronyms out there?

SMITH: I do, yes. And as a government information librarian, I think I can speak for most of my government information colleagues when I say that we all do whatever we can to kind of help organize and lead people to that information.

(SLOW PIANO AND WOODWIND MUSIC)

DOZIER: A lot of people are frustrated, frequently I think, with how many acronyms are out there and how difficult it can be to keep track and understand them. Do you see this proliferation of acronyms in the federal government as a bad thing?

SMITH: You know, I don’t. I have heard and read many complaints also about how many acronyms there are. And I understand those frustrations, because it can be very confusing when you don’t know the terminology. But I think that, you know, acronyms can actually be really helpful in communication -- it can make things much more efficient when you’re talking with people who share that lingo. So, like, my library, for example, is programmatically structured to represent areas like reference and research advisory services, or what we call RRAS [razz] -- R-R-A-S. And, you know, I can confirm that it’s much more efficient for us to say RRAS 10 times a day than to repeatedly try to say Reference and Research Advisory Services. And I’m sure that the same is true for federal employees in speaking with their own colleagues. I think it only becomes problematic when the audience isn’t as familiar with the acronyms as the insiders are.

DOZIER: Do you have any favorite acronyms that you’ve come across in your time compiling this library?

SMITH: You know, I have to say, I don’t think that the U.S. government has tried to be particularly creative when coming up with acronyms. The one that’s probably my favorite, as a cat person, is the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query And Reporting System. The acronym is W-I-S-Q-A-R-S. What I call “whiskers” has nothing to do with cats, and I don’t even know if the CDC employees pronounce it as “whiskers,” but I do. (LAUGHS)

DOZIER: (LAUGHS) They must.

SMITH: And it makes me smile every time I see it.

DOZIER: Are you familiar with the term backronyms?

SMITH: Backronym -- no, that’s a new one for me.

(SOFT CHIMES AND ELECTRONIC MUSIC)

DOZIER: Okay, so this is a particular type of acronym that someone has clearly come up with the word they want to use, and then made the acronym words fit that.

SMITH: Okay. I actually have some appreciation for that (LAUGHS), because I think that acronyms that are easy to remember and easy to say, and that are unique are actually better acronyms when you’re sharing them outside of your particular unit or department or whatever. So, I think if you come up with something that’s kind of unique based on what you wanted to say, that can actually be a good thing.

DOZIER: Well, Kelly Smith, thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. This has been very enlightening.

SMITH: Great, thanks so much.

(CHEERFUL PIZZICATO VIOLIN AND PIANO MUSIC)

LANTERO: Now, here at the Department of Energy -- note that I said Department of Energy, not DOE -- we work with some very bright people who have mastered the art of the backronym.

DOZIER: Their office is called ARPA-E, which is itself (of course) an acronym -- it stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy -- and that’s actually based on another acronym, the Defense Department’s “DARPA.” Very meta, I know.

LANTERO: Anyway, ARPA-E does really cool, cutting-edge research on technologies across a bunch of different fields that could shape the future of energy. They helped develop energy kites to access stronger wind, a liquid metal battery that can store up to 12 hours of energy, and a natural gas compressor to make it easier for cars and trucks to run on natural gas, to name a few.

And to keep track of all these diverse research projects, they use a lot of, shall we say, creative acronyms.

(PLAYFUL WOODWIND MUSIC)

WOMAN #1: BEETIT. Building Energy Efficiency through Innovative Thermodevices, which love, because it reminds me of “Beat It”.

MAN #1: ALPHA. Accelerating Low-cost Plasma Heating and Assembly.

MAN #2: AMPED. Advanced Management & Protection of Energy Storage Devices.

WOMAN #2: FOCUS. Full-Spectrum Optimized Conversion and Utilization of Sunlight.

DOZIER: You may have noticed that these aren’t just any acronyms. These, are backronyms.

MAN #3: GRIDS. Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage.

WOMAN #3: REFUEL. Renewable Energy to Fuels through Utilization of Energy-dense Liquids.

MAN #4: REACT. Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies. It spells something awesome, and it is something awesome.

LANTERO: Each one is the name of an ARPA-E program that groups together several research projects under a theme, and as you’ll hear shortly, the acronyms are carefully chosen to reflect that theme. We asked our colleagues here in the Public Affairs office to read us their favorites.

(RELAXED ACOUSTIC GUITAR MUSIC)

WOMAN #4: GENI, G-E-N-I. ARPA-E’s Green Electricity Network Integration program, kind of reminds me of “I Dream of Jeannie.”

WOMAN #5: BEEST, Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation. So it’s “beast,” but it’s spelled B-E-E-S-T. It’s almost adorable, it’s like trying really hard to be a tough word that everyone recognizes.

MAN #5: NODES. Network Optimized Distributed Energy Systems. Well, I think biology, you know, with lymph nodes.

WOMAN #6: ROOTS. Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration. It sounds very cool. I mean, terrestrial -- that has to be some sort of extraterrestrial alien situation. At first I thought it said “rhinosphere,” so then I was just like imagining a zoo.

DOZIER (OFF MIC): You’re picturing an alien rhino zoo.

WOMAN #6: (LAUGHING) Pretty much. Yes.

DOZIER: OK, so I realize that some of these are pretty out there, but there’s actually a good reason for that. Like Kelly Smith said earlier, they’re supposed to be memorable. But don’t take my word for it -- here’s ARPA-E’s Chris Atkinson to give us the inside scoop on his office’s obsession with colorful acronyms.

(UPBEAT JAZZ MUSIC)

CHRIS ATKINSON: I’m Chris Atkinson. I’m a Program Director at ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy,

DOZIER: So Chris, tell me a little bit about what you do for ARPA-E.

ATKINSON: An ARPA-E program is an overarching portfolio of projects. We solicit the very best of ideas from the broader energy community, and we end up supporting academics, national labs, large companies, small companies, small innovators, entrepreneurs under this umbrella.

DOZIER: So, the specific program that you’re a director for is…

ATKINSON: NEXTCAR: NEXT-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Automated Road vehicles.

DOZIER: Which is quite a mouthful. And you’ve obviously shortened this as NEXTCAR. I was curious about how the name NEXTCAR came about.

ATKINSON: That’s a very good question. We take a lot of pride at ARPA-E in “acro-naming,” as we call it -- we’ve come up with our own verb. And NEXTCAR is aimed at improving the energy efficiency of vehicles by using connectivity and automation. In the near future, vehicles will become increasingly connected to each other. In other words, as you’re driving down the road, without your intervention, your vehicle will know what the vehicle ahead and the vehicle ahead of that is doing or is about to do. It might be braking, accelerating, steering, changing lanes. And the idea is that that information can be used in some way, shape, or form to improve the energy efficiency of your car, and those cars -- and the cars around it.

(SLOW TUBA AND ACCORDION MUSIC)

ATKINSON: Unfortunately, NEXTCAR used the “next” part of the term in the word itself, as in NEXT-Generation Energy Technologies. And then the Connected and Automated Road vehicles provides the CAR. And it’s a subtlety. But it’s one that -- as I said -- it violates some deeply held philosophy here at ARPA-E with respect to acronaming. It took a lot of political capital to get the name through, but I was adamant that the idea of the next car, your next car, should have these technologies, ultimately won the day. So it’s up to us to make sure that these technologies that we fund and sponsor will actually do what I’m hoping, which is to appear on your next car.

DOZIER: So walk me through a little bit of the process of acro-naming.

ATKINSON: The general area of the program is obviously well-understood by the agency by the time that we come around to developing a name, but then it’s opened up in a competition, where everyone is asked to provide acronyms. And it’s amazing how inventive people can be, and how inventive your colleagues can be in coming up with a name that’s particularly apt for your program -- one that you would not necessarily have thought of yourself.

DOZIER: How many submissions do you get for an average program name?

ATKINSON: There’s a large number. 10, 20, 30 or 40. Some people provide a range of possibilities, and some of them deviate into the absurd. We have the Scrabble aficionados and the people who choose obscure dictionary entries that perhaps the rest of us don’t fully understand, and so you have to filter those ones out. But the idea in the end is to come up with a readily acceptable name, and the acronym not be in regular use. So for example, we can’t use words that are too common and too popular, because it could simply be lost in the noise, so to speak. So we have to come up with something that’s fairly unique, and yet means something distinct to us and to the broader community at large.

(UPBEAT PIZZICATO VIOLIN AND FLUTE MUSIC)

DOZIER: So in the process of the acro-naming, is there any competition between folks here in the office?

ATKINSON: There’s significant competition. Some people take it as a badge of honor to be able to have have their specific acronym accepted as the name of that project for the next three years, and indeed in perpetuity.

DOZIER: Do you have a particular favorite of the ARPA-E acronyms that you’ve come across so far?

ATKINSON: A wide range of favorites. So for example, a colleague, Eric Schiff, has SHIELD, which is Single-pane Highly Insulating Efficient Lucid Designs. And the idea behind SHIELD is to retrofit existing single-pane windows, which are highly energy-inefficient. And the idea behind SHIELD is that word then implies that you’re providing a shield -- a barrier -- to heat transfer in single-pane windows, while still providing the full light transmission. So it is a very well self-contained kind of a word, which, when you spell it out, means something in both its title, and in the acronym itself.

DOZIER: And that’s, I think, a good point to touch on, then, is this idea of these acronyms encapsulating the identity of the programs. Can you tell me a little bit about how that is a part of ARPA-E’s identity?

ATKINSON: Each of these programs, in itself, becomes sort of a vibrant, living being, if you like. The idea is that this program, which has the acronym, then becomes, to a certain extent, an entity of its own. So these are entities which we sort of grow and nurture over time, and each and every one of them represent some distinct part of ARPA-E and ARPA-E’s day-to-day activities.

(UPBEAT PIANO AND VIOLIN MUSIC)

DOZIER: So do you feel an emotional connection to these acronyms?

ATKINSON: Indeed, indeed. Once you’ve developed a program and seen it through from concept all the way to awarding projects, and at some point to its ultimate completion, it does, it becomes sort of -- much like a child, I guess. NEXTCAR is currently at a kindergarten level, but I’m looking forward to it graduating grade school and eventually going off to college and then out into the wider world.

DOZIER: Would you consider yourself an expert in acronaming?

ATKINSON: No, unfortunately, none of my acronyms -- other than my own -- have been accepted, but it doesn’t stop me. Each time a fellow program director has a call for an acronym, I’m there contributing along with all the rest.

DOZIER: I’m going to put you on the spot here and see if you think you might be able to come up with an acronym for your own name, Chris.

ATKINSON: (LAUGHS) That’s a very good question. Ah, Chris. C-H-R-I-S. S… S for system is always, well -- is always a good thing. The H, R, and the I… There’s no E for energy, that’s the problem. Can I change my name?

DOZIER: (LAUGHS) I’m not sure I can grant you that permission.

ATKINSON: Yeah, no, you’ve put me on the spot. There’s no E for energy, no E for efficiency. That’s, C-H-R-I-S. Creating, Historical, Regions, of Interests… (LAUGHS) I can’t. I can’t come up with an acronym.

DOZIER: System.

ATKINSON: System. Exactly. It doesn’t -- it doesn’t hang together very well at all.

DOZIER: Need to workshop that one a little bit, maybe.

ATKINSON: We will have to. We’re going to have to -- yeah, I’ll legally change my name and add two E’s for energy efficiency. That’s the only way we’ll come up with a good acronym.

DOZIER: CHREES, maybe.

ATKINSON: CHREES. Indeed. CHREES.

(UPBEAT ELECTRIC GUITAR AND PIANO MUSIC)

DOZIER: That’s it for this episode!

LANTERO: Be sure to check out our next episode, “The Future of Cool” for a closer look at ARPA-E’s DELTA program -- that’s Delivering Efficient Local Thermal Amenities -- it's one of several Energy Department programs that’s working change the way you beat the summer heat.

DOZIER: Got a good backronym for your own name? We want to hear it! Tweet at us @ENERGY or send us an email at directcurrent@hq.doe.gov.

LANTERO: If you’re enjoying Direct Current, help us spread the word! Tell your friends about the show, and leave us a rating or review on iTunes. We really appreciate the feedback.

(AMBIENT ELECTRONIC OUTRO MUSIC)

DOZIER: A big thank-you to Chris Atkinson and the rest of the fine folks at ARPA-E for their help with this story. If you want to learn more about ARPA-E, you can find them at ARPA -- that’s A-R-P-A -- HYPHEN E DOT ENERGY DOT GOV.

DOZIER: Thanks as well to Kelly Smith and the UC San Diego Library. We’ll have a link to their GovSpeak Guide on our blog for this episode at ENERGY DOT GOV SLASH PODCAST.

LANTERO: Direct Current is produced by Matt Dozier, Simon Edelman and me, Allison Lantero. Art and design by Carly Wilkins. With support from Paul Lester, Pat Adams, Daniel Wood, Atiq Warraich, and Ernie Ambrose. Special thanks to our intern, Cole Edick, and our boss, Marissa Newhall.

DOZIER: Thanks to everyone on the Energy Public Affairs team for lending their voices to this episode, and to the DOE Media Team for their support. We’re a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation's capitol in Washington, D.C.

LANTERO: Until next time, thanks for listening!

MAN #6: TRANSNET. Traveler Response Architecture using Novel Signaling for Network Efficiency in Transportation, and the “using” is silent.

DOZIER (OFF MIC): Is that what you liked about it?

MAN #6: Because otherwise it’s “TRAUNSNET.”

DOZIER (OFF MIC): Not quite as catchy.

MAN #6: TRAUNSNET is not as catchy as TRANSNET. I am sure “traun” is absolutely a word in the Scholastic spelling bee, and it’s from the Old Germanic --

DOZIER (OFF MIC): Could you use it in a sentence?

MAN #6: I found a “traun” while traveling on the response architecture using novel signaling for network efficiency in transportation. Traun.

DOZIER (OFF MIC): But they went with TRANSNET. Good call?

MAN #6: I actually think they captured what it is fairly well, they just have this problem with the “using” and thought that they would sneak it past us.

DOZIER (OFF MIC): Read it one more time.

MAN #6: TRANSNET. Traveler Response Architecture (WHISPERS) using (SPEAKING NORMALLY) Novel Signaling for Network Efficiency in Transportation.

DOZIER (OFF MIC): All right. Thank you.

{END}