Somewhere in the world, a TV channel is showing a re-run of Friends. Not entirely a bad thing, but being old enough to have watched it when the series first aired, I think I have seen more than my fair share of the show’s re-runs. Again, not entirely a bad thing, as with each re-run I try to listen (or watch) out for any interesting language plays. Therefore, I give you some opening dialogue for the last episode of season 3: ‘The One at the Beach’. It was first broadcast on 15th May 1997:

Phoebe: Hey, you guys! Look what I found! Look at this! (She hands Chandler a picture.) That’s my Mom’s writing! Look.
Chandler: (Reading the back of the picture.) Me and Frank and Phoebe, Graduation 1965.
Phoebe: Y'know what that means?
Joey: That you’re actually 50?
Phoebe: No-no, that’s not, that’s not me Phoebe, that’s her pal Phoebe. According to her high school yearbook, they were like BFF. (Ross and Bonnie look at Phoebe quizzically.) Best Friends Forever.
All: Oh!
Rachel: That is so cool.
Phoebe: I know! So this woman probably could like have all kinds of stories about my parents, and she might even know like where my Dad is. So I looked her up, and she lives out by the beach. So maybe this weekend we could go to the beach?
All: Yeah! Yeah, we can!

What jumps out to me (and I hope you) from this snippet is the BFF reference. Was this the first time that BFF was ever used, I got to thinking?

That thought was certainly kept short. A Google ngram shows that BFF has been bubbling away in our language for much longer than the middle of 1997: albeit at an extremely low simmering heat. The OED has a documented first use from a Florida Herald news article of 1987. So perhaps Phoebe was the first mainstream media star user of BFF. It took Paris Hilton (remember her?) another ten years before she had her own show with BFF in the title. So from obscurity to today's prevalence of using shorthand for everything - OMG LOL TMI so IDGI - what was the catalyst?

I grew up without the aid of modern telegraphic technologies. It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that my parents had a phone in the house (through choice, not that it hadn’t been invented - how old do you think I am?). So casting my mind back to that period of my life in search of acronyms has proven to be a barren experience. The best I could recollect was SWALK (sealed with a loving kiss and not the early 1980s TV show), PTO, PS, and NASA. Only half of that list is pure acronyms. An acronym being:

A word based upon a series of first letters from a longer phrase or name.

It derives from a pair of Greek words: akros meaning extreme, topmost and onym meaning name. There are plenty of these ‘nym’ ending words in the English language which further classify nouns (and you thought that ended at uncountable nouns?)

You pronounce the letters as a word for a pure acronym:

NASA, NATO, scuba

If you widen the definition of acronym to include any series of letters where you pronounce them as either a single word or individual letters, then you include many, many more in to that list including:


Nothing really strange about acronyms other than using capital letters to replace the series of nouns being replaced. But what about scuba I hear you ask? Scuba, laser and radar are no longer capitalised acronyms as they are regular words. Similarly, for acronyms which include ‘filler’ words, the filler word is (usually) represented in lower case. For example, what’s the ‘f’ in TfL (Transport for London). You can create acronyms on the fly (CAF). When you do CAF, remember to define what the acronym stands for either directly after use (as I did in the prior sentence) or within an appendix if there are many acronyms used within a document - either well known or CAFs. Yes, you can make them plural too.

The only other piece of grammar to note about acronyms is to take care in using the correct indefinite article. We can use MD as an acronym for a medical doctor or a managing director. When we use the acronym for either of these two, then the indefinite article it takes is ‘an’. MD has the vowel sounding ‘em’ first syllable. An acronym never immediately assumes the indefinite article which would precede the full phrase (though many end up being the same indefinite article):

A managing director can sign this document. When you ask an MD to sign the document, make sure they initial each page too.

Wikipedia has plenty of excellent information about the world of acronyms. They also have lists of acronyms for your edification. The ‘A’s are here. If you change the last letter in that URL to any other capitalised letter of the alphabet, you can see more.

If a NASA astronaut sent me a letter, included a PTO and a PS and finished it with a SWALK, I may be walking on the moon as a result. Jimmy Young, a British radio disc jockey of years gone by, may well have played ‘Walking on the Moon’ on one of his radio shows.

Again, I’m dating myself, but in my defence I was not a listener of BBC Radio 2 when I was growing up. That channel was for the oldies. BBC Radio 1 or Radio Caroline, if you please. However, we’d have BBC Radio 2 on in the car, so whenever Jimmy Young said goodbye at the end of his show he’d say “TTFN”. Well, that’s what I thought he said. TTFN or ‘ta ta for now’ is a letter pronounced acronym, but Jimmy didn’t say it. He would end by saying ‘BFN’. No, not ‘Best Friend Now’ but ‘Bye For Now’.

On a Thursday in early December 1992, Neil Papworth sent the first SMS message. This sentence is noteworthy for its correct acronym usage. It’s an SMS message and not an SMS. Be careful with your acronym pronunciation. SMS stands for Short Message Service. So it’s a service through which we can exchange electronic messages. An acronym which consistently grates my ear relates to PIN:

PIN stands for Personal Identification Number. So, Barclays, when you write ‘… never have to give you PIN number’ you make two grammar errors:

’give you’ should be ‘give your’

’PIN number’ in full is Personal Identification Number number. Only needs one number there.

In Barclays’ defence, when you click for the full answer to the FAQ it reads perfectly well. On a security level, it doesn’t matter if its PIN or PIN number, you should never, never share your bank card personal identification number. Grammatically, IMHO, it’s pedantic. However, PIN number has become so accepted that I’m very much in the minority and need to get over it. However, join me in the GIAPoW (grammatically incorrect acronym pronunciation or writing) section of the grammar police. IKR, OTT.

That first SMS message, ‘merry Christmas’, was sent from a computer to an Orbitel TPU 901. The Orbitel was a mobile handset. Not exactly back-pocket size, is it? Work on developing SMS started nearly ten years earlier in 1984. German engineer Friedhelm Hillebrand and his French colleague Bernard Ghillebaert were looking at ways to allow message exchange through existing phone networks. Through limitations available to them, this set the message length to 160 characters. Hillebrand analysed sentence lengths and saw that most them were less than 160 characters, so that limitation should not be a limitation. Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen further developed on the initial work, and through his employer, Nokia, released the first SMS message friendly mobile phone in the shape of the Nokia 2100, released during 1994.

With a limit on message lengths, mobile phone users soon created shorthand. However, being new technology and a high cost of entry meant that initial use of SMS messaging was low. In the UK, the number of SMS messages sent per customer in 1995 was just two every five months. Technology costs fell, as did barriers in exchanging SMS messages between different network operators during 1999, and by the turn of the new century, the number of SMS messages sent by UK customers had jumped to 35 per month. On Christmas Day 2006, UK mobile phone users sent over 205 million “Merry Christmas” SMS messages.

With this rapid uptake of SMS message use and the still 160 character limit, more and more txt spk was used, including BFF. Whilst in 1997 Phoebe prevented a further fall in BFF usage, she did not single-handedly kick-start its early 2000s trajectory. The Google ngram for BFF took off from 2002/03, clearing the tower by 2006, and reached the moon soon afterwards. Perhaps Phoebe can take some credit for the launch of BFF’s use, but the work of our German, French and Finnish engineers and the limitations in character number availability they enforced certainly pushed it much further into everyday language through the use of SMS messages.

Similar to when the internet was young, SMS messages created their own lexicon. The internet had spam, SMS messages had LOL. The internet had trolls, SMS messages had BYOB. SMS messaging was way more fun than sitting at your desk with a full keyboard in front of you, and little to limit the number of characters you used. The internet created new definitions rather than extra words. Sure, chat-rooms were a hotbed of shorthand (and much else), but that was more an inability to touch type at conversational speeds. Mobile phones remained cumbersome to use for typing messages until smart phones. Even then, with screens able to project keyboards, a cocktail of laziness, tradition and mystique kept the use of acronyms partying along.

Corporations, never ones for not missing a party bandwagon, jumped with gusto on to the acronym ride. They pushed their use as being ‘trendy’ and ‘in keeping with the youth culture we hold so dear’. I think it was more an effort to cloud their industries in even more secrecy as only the companies knew exactly what the acronyms they made up truly meant and hid their meanings in pages of small print appendices that no one (apart from analysts paid to do so) read.

This is not new. Professions have for many, many years been using language in code. Not the codes of cyphers and Bletchley Park. But the language of Cockney rhyming slang, butcher’s back slang, and the slang of thieves. For centuries, coded language existed for one group of people to speak freely so that group outsiders did not understand. Today’s SMS messaging keeps that tradition alive within the various social groups that utilise messaging applications. Shorthand not only frees up character availability, and is quicker and to key in, it ensures that only those that know the code can read what you write. OTOH, the 160 character limit has long gone with many messaging applications available now for smart phone users. Acronyms remain.

IRL youngsters speak in smart phone acronym tinted language. IDC as long as I understand what is being communicated. It’s fun to guess. IAE, ISO answers is difficult BT for language changes, the youngsters typically lead the charge. So, asking what an acronym means? LOLZ. Better to save face as an oldie and live (and text) in ignorance. SMH, WTF right? Phoebe, if I recollect, was the eldest of the Friends. She was the one who needed to explain to the younger members what BFF meant. Good for her.

B4N, HAG1 and BCNU.