Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Avoid acronyms!

This week the president of Carnegie Mellon University sent a most incredible e-mail. The subject line read: "Message from the President Regarding New Board on Administration, Regulation and Finance (BARF)". Seriously!

In the text of the BARF message President Cohon said: "Please see the announcement below about a new committee that I have created to provide advice and guidance on the regulatory burden we are facing. I consider this to be a significant undertaking and of great importance to the future of Carnegie Mellon."

President Cohon then listed the names of at least 20 BARF people to serve on the BARF Committee, most of them senior staff members (BARFers) at CMU (the pure number of people creating a problem of its own).

Did the president not realize the meanings of his acronym, "BARF"? Did he choose the BARF name on purpose, thinking it would stick or that the members would feel like part of something special, a BARF group? How do the BARF members feel about being on the BARF Committee? And, what kind of BARF work will they do? Chugging contests? Did President Cohon choose the BARF acronym because he thought it fit a college (fraternity) culture? Or, was it simply a (very) dumb mistake?

Obviously the BARF acronym will create some commentary, such as this. It has already begun to spread virally around campus. But, the BARF name won't work; no one will automatically know that it means "Board on Administration, Regulation and Finance." Acronyms seldom work, despite their widespread use. Most people have no idea what FEMA means or the OMB, DOD, TARP, AFMLS, BLS, CCR, CDP, DOS, FHFA, and all the rest. (Go to this site if you want to see the hundreds of US government acronyms:

Acronyms only work when they are created by the people who use the product or service. Customers created FedEx, not Federal Express, who acquiesced to its use after the fact. The Los Angeles Police Department was named LAPD by the people of Los Angeles, probably after the people of New York named the NYPD. And, speaking of Los Angeles, we easily call it "LA" but no one calls New York "NY". And, you don't find New York City promoting itself as "NY" or "NYC".

What can you learn from all this talk about BARF? If you feel tempted to create an acronym for your product, service or committee, resist the urge. No one will know what you're talking about. You may just end up with BARF all over the message (and the group).


  1. Hi Ed,

    Here in Washington state, we had the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, pronounced "whoops") try to build five nuclear reactors back in the 60s. They sold a bond and assumed that the massive profits from the first two reactors would pay for the latter three, and burned up all their capital quickly, thus causing the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history... thus living up to its name "whoops."

  2. HAHAHAHAHA! That doesn't surprise me. Thanks!