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.