Annals of abbreviation

An informant in Technoland reports to me that staff members in the informant’s company who come from India and Taiwan (and possibly other countries as well) are accustomed to abbreviating follow(-)up (verb or noun) in in-house writing as “f/u” — an obvious, and clearly useful, shortening in the right context.

Of course, this clashes with the associations that many of the American staff have for the abbreviation. Things like

We need to f/u.

can be problematic. The question is: What, if anything, should the American staff do about this?

(Things are more complex if the staff are writing to customers rather than to other staff.)

Option 1: Explain to the others that what they write is likely to be taken as “dirty language” by some readers, so they should spell out the words. Probably good advice when you’re dealing with customers who aren’t privy to in-house conventions, but not at all so clear when you’re dealing with other staff.

Option 2: Expect the American staff to accommodate to other people’s practices, to cope with with a potential ambiguity in context. We do this all the time. (Any number of people with the initials BJ — first and middle, or first and last — use those initials in many contexts, sometimes as nicknames; consider B.J. Hunnicutt in the tv series M*A*S*H. Everyone else learns to damp the connection to blowjob.)

People are in fact mostly really good at handling potential ambiguity in context. And repeated experience with one of the uses of an expression can wear down unfortunate associations with another of them. We cope.

[But when context is scant, the normal accommodations can fail. See, for example, Victor Mair’s Language Log discussion of the vanity license place


(intended to convey “I love tofu”), which the state of Tennessee rejected on the grounds that it was vulgar.

Meanwhile, people associated with Fordham University, Franklin University, and so on, refer to these institutions as “F.U.” very rarely or not at all, since short names for institutions are used in so many different contexts.]


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