Politics of Abbreviation

by Gilbert

Singtel, CTE, PIE, NEA, NParks, SMRT, MOE, MOM.

Besides being from Singapore, what do these abbreviation have in common?

Singaporeans have for long noticed the spread of abbreviated versions of the names of statuary boards, ministries, highways and everything that can be linked to the government. But is there something revealing from their consistent and pervasive usage?

Abbreviations are not done simply with the object of saving time. Shortened words are a characteristic feature of political language, especially in totalitarian organisations, for instance words like Nazi (which is short for Nationalsozialismus/ National Socialism) and Gestapo (which is short for Geheime Staatspolizei or secret state police). Even large companies like BP (British Petroleum) and KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) have joined the bandwagon to simplify their names. They are used consciously to narrow and alter their meaning, and thus remove associations and unecessary meanings that they would otherwise possess. KFC tries to minimise the image of oily, unhealthy food and poor treatment of battery chickens by simplifying its name; BP tries to impress its international image and cut ties with its imperialistic history by abbreviation. Simple abbreviations minimises thought by instant brand recognition, like recognising a logo or typeface. Longer words obliges consideration and contemplation.

Care is also taken to make words easily pronounceable, making them more fleeting in presence. Bukit Timah Expressway is not called BTE as its spoken form is hard to clarify – instead BKE sounds better and is easier to pronounce. Thus the ideal is that by refering to these organisations in simple naming, it alludes to a well organised team with a well-defined doctrine. Ideology becomes neutral. Consciousness of meaning and implication is dulled.

Abbreviation becomes a political tool to manage opinion and intellectual activity.

This post is inspired by and draws many ideas from George Orwell’s 1984.