As Michael Connelly’s bristly no-nonsense detective Harry Bosch says in The Black Echo, fed up to the gills with the infinite cascade of public acronyms for every conceivable police file, unit, task force, and department, acronyms give a sense of “eliteness,” of special authority, to the routine and humdrum business of professional practice and institutional procedure.
Obviously, ciphers, abbreviations, and alphabetical contractions facilitate ordinary communication. They operate as a form of shorthand to convey messages without bogging down in wordy prolongations that may lose the thread of an argument or send our interlocutors to sleep. As such, they perform a necessary function. Thus we are comfortable using alphabetical elisions for institutions, offices, programs and titles like FBI, CIA, DoJ, NATO, the UN, KFC, SNL, NYT, WSJ, NBC, CEO, and so on, or phrasal compressions like ASAP, AWOL, aka, TLC, LOL, WTF, IMO, ad infinitum.
The same applies to individuals, especially to names of famous people—e.g., MLK—or of presidents who may, or may not, have earned the sobriquet, for example: FDR, JFK, LBJ or GWB (the latter tinseled by the nickname “Dubya). This makes sense since they are referred to in political discourse with relative frequency.
An article in Slate for June 11, 2012, ruminates on the growing ubiquity of “the three-initial formulation,” which it sees as generic forms of compression trimmed for newspaper convenience. But as the article also suggests, there is more to it. Lyndon Baines Johnson understood the power of the triple initial; as Robert Caro reports in The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Johnson said, “What I want is for them to start thinking of me in terms of initials.” This is understandable. Three initials are a reputation enhancer.
Acronyms, as Bosch complains, may also serve the purpose of raising the commonplace and even the insignificant to the level of high importance, conferring an aura of gravity and magnitude upon objects, affairs, and institutions that are inherently trivial or negligible. Even worse, they can launder the sordid and degenerate, rendering the spurious as licit and authentic. A perfect instance of the latter would be agencies such as the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) or SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) or CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), admittedly authoritative sounding names in themselves and thus slickly deceptive. The contraction implies that such syndicates merit an acronymic currency, that they are legal intellectual tender when in fact they are a counterfeit medium of political exchange. They coat the corrupt and venal with the varnish of legitimacy.
Thus, the acronym may also perform the function of levitating not merely the prominent but the abject and discreditable to the status of rectitude or substance, dignity or grandeur. It bestows a nimbus of inevitability upon its dubious bearer as someone worthy of mainstream beatification or at least intellectually vital, as part of an essential conversation that enters the lexicon of permanence—in short, as a figure worthy of memory and respect whose name is thus coded into the language.
This is why serious observers and commentators should never use the acronym AOC for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As has been reliably pointed out in many articles and reports, Ocasio-Cortez is an empty-headed parasite on the system that has allowed her to prosper in the political realm, a tax cheat, a liar, a hypocrite, an economic illiterate and a woefully under-educated poser devoid of any shred of historical knowledge or the slightest sign of intellectual wherewithal and consistency. The defamatory epithet making the rounds, “occasional cortex,” is far more appropriate.
Plato in the Apology had the type pegged for all posterity in the character of Meletus, who accuses Socrates of the very “corruption” of which he himself is guilty. In the words of philosophy professor Jacob Howland in The New Criterion, Plato sketched the portrait of a “young radical who scorns traditional values and practices; whose thinking is highly schematic and confined to empty abstractions; whose inflated self-perception manifests itself in envy and resentment; and who seeks personal advancement by attacking nonconforming individuals and groups.” Though we know Meletus only by his given name, he is in effect a three-initial charlatan and would today be one of the stalwarts of the Democratic Party.
There can be little doubt that reputable future historians would mention Ocasio-Cortez, if they mention her at all, by her given names and never by the currently popular acronym. After all, why not refer to her simply as Ocasio-Cortez? Why confirm the glitz of an ignorant neophyte? To use the acronym is to endow her with a moral value and intellectual cachet she does not deserve, even if it expedites reference. It turns her into a cultural icon rather than a political embarrassment. It does no service to the country to embellish her réclame with the rhinestone ornament of an acronym. It is a violation of both prudence and integrity to zip-code her into the language via acronymic substitution.
Harry Bosch is right. We should not be elevating what is low or mean into a condition of celebrity. The prestige conveyed by the acronym in such cases is meretricious and ultimately harmful. In the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it contributes to the glamour of a reputation that cannot stand up to scrutiny. It should be avoided at all costs.