Talking the Talk Of the Town

Ferk, nerk, es-em-dee. Pooka, purpa, ar-tee-o. No, I am not writing code, or gibberish, or avant-garde poetry. On the contrary, I am writing a list of terms that you, too, will need to know if you want to keep up with the big hitters in Washington this fall. Here’s a hint: It’s to do with that big blackout last month. Here’s another hint: Think acronyms.

If you still don’t know, I’ll translate. Ferk is, of course, FERC — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Nerk is NERC — formerly the National Electricity Reliability Council, now the North American Electricity Reliability Council (but they didn’t want to change NERC to NAERC, presumably because the connotations of “nark” were all wrong). As for the others: SMD is standard market design; PUHCA is the Public Utility Holding Company Act; and PURPA is the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act. Last but not least, an RTO is, of course, a Regional Transmission Organization.

Still reading? Then you’re doing better than most people, who would be turned off by an article packed with acronyms and initialisms such as the ones listed here. Yet if you want to participate in the public debate about the electricity grid then you have to be able to throw them around with aplomb. For even if you do happen to know, say, that the federal government would like energy companies to join regional organizations that all use the same rules, that does you no good whatever if you can’t work out that the sentence “FERC called for SMDs and RTOs” means more or less the same thing.

It isn’t only energy policy that’s affected by the initialism disease, of course. Environmental policy is nearly paralyzed by it, what with the frequent nonchalant references to “flipma” (FLPMA: the Federal Land Policy and Management Act) or SMACRA (Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act). Health policy is pretty bad too, what with PPSs, PPOs, HMOs, SCHIP — pronounced “S-Chip” — not to mention HIPAA and CLIA, for the truly initiated, many of which are administered by HHS’s CMS, whose Web site contains a link to an acronym glossary where you can look them all up. While regulators are the worst — banking regulation acronyms are so profuse I’m trying not to learn them — in recent years Washington insiders have also begun to use initialisms even when perfectly good ordinary names are available. Take the vaguely obscene “SCOTUS” and “POTUS,” fairly common terms used when the speaker wants to indicate both that he is talking about the Supreme Court of the United States or the president of the United States, and that he is a hip insider who would never use ordinary, plebeian terms such as “the Supreme Court” or “the president.” And for the cognoscente there’s always “FLOTUS,” a reference, of course, to the first lady.

It can get confusing. What is the ICC, after all — is it the International Criminal Court, or the Interstate Commerce Commission, or Maryland’s proposed intercounty connector? And why is the NAACP pronounced “en-double-A-see-pee,” whereas AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, is pronounced, simply, “arp”? Could it be because AARP recently changed its official name to Aarp, actually transforming its title from an acronym into a brand-new word? Some pronunciations defy logic altogether — such as PFIAB, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, pronounced “Piffy-Ab.”

But abbreviations are also a sign of our times, and not a good one either. A half-century ago George Orwell warned that the proliferation of acronyms heralded the advance of the totalitarian state. An acronym, after all, is a word whose full meaning is concealed by its pronunciation. Think Gestapo, for example, or Gulag — both acronyms of Orwell’s era. The increasing acronym use in Washington may not be totalitarian but it isn’t exactly democratic either. Thanks to acronyms, neologisms, euphemisms and other forms of government jargon, small groups of people in the nation’s capital now speak, in effect, private languages that are incomprehensible to the rest of the country — and, yes, there are implications for real life.

I can’t prove it, but I’m guessing the confusing language used to discuss our national electricity grid is a pretty fair reflection of the confusing state of electricity regulation. I’d also guess that our electricity grid owes at least a part of its poor condition to the fact that both the general public and its congressional representatives have deliberately avoided joining the acronym-laden discussion of how to fix it, leaving the field to lawyers and lobbyists. No one wants to be embarrassed by a mispronunciation of PUHCA, after all — or shunned for failing to know that PURPA and the Purple Line are really quite different things.

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