May 9, 2009

Initially concerned

Sometimes when I get an intitialism-riddled press release, I can decipher it with some judicious Googling. But I was stumped by a release from a bank about its new "BSA officer."

Boy Scouts of America?
Business Software Alliance?
Boston Society of Architects?

Those were some of the top Google results. None in the first pageful had to do with banking.

Just for kicks,* I looked at Wikipedia, which gave me a very entertaining list that includes:

  • Bearing Specialists Association

  • Belarusian Socialist Assembly

  • Bethesda Softworks Archive

  • Birmingham School of Acting

  • Bismuth (Bi), Tin (Sn), Silver (Ag) solder

  • Botanical Society of America

  • Bovine serum albumin

  • Brazilian Space Agency

  • British Soap Awards

  • British Stratego Association

and much more.

Fortunately, the bank's publicist quickly responded to my e-mail request for a translation: "Bank Secrecy Act." Without that information, I would have had to omit the item. Of course, I would be much happier had I been given plain English to begin with.

This is a larger issue at daily newspapers, where staff cuts have been staggering. As journalists increasingly rely on publicists to provide information, that information must be correct, concise, and clear.

Clarity requires translating initialisms and other jargon into plain English. Only a handful -- CEO, CPA and MBA are the first that come to mind -- are so well-known as to need no explanation.

And frankly, outside of a business context, even those are iffy. There are circles in which those would be seen as referring to "Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization," "Craft Potters' Association" and "Marine Biological Association," respectively.

* — That Wikipedia is unusable as a source for proper journalism has, I think, now been well-established.

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