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If you happen to be a US Supreme Court junky like I am (ok, not the worst of guilty secrets to reveal), you will likely have caught wind of the recent George Mason University #ASSoL blunder. If not, here’s the high-level scoop:

In honor of the late Justice Antonin Scalia (and as a result of some very large donations) George Mason University is renaming its law school. The initially announced name, “The Antonin Scalia School of Law” was immediately lambasted by the Twittersphere as #ASSoL and #ASSLaw due to the unfortunate acronym formed by the new school name. After a couple of days of ridicule, George Mason University announced that the name has been revised to “The Antonin Scalia Law School.”

The University hopes that their revision will put the matter to rest and restore the dignity due to the Justice and the school. Though, as one Tweet noted, “I’m sure that as a strict constructionalist, Scalia would insist on the original.”

All joking aside, this case is a perfect example of death by unfortunate acronym. As many people have noted, regardless of what happens in the future, the school is now likely forever stuck with the ASSoL/ASSLaw moniker—though only time will tell whether it actually sticks permanently. In this case, as the law school name was so quickly changed, some of the damage may have been mitigated.

acronyms

For example, you probably don’t remember these classics, which were quickly withdrawn:

  • In several early instances, then White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer referred to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as, “Operation Iraqi Liberation.” Whether the official name or not, that phrase was quickly replaced with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to dispense with the unfortunate connotations of the OIL acronym associated with the former phrase.
  • As another example, a local UK Krispy Kreme franchise promoted—including large banners in the store and Facebook posts—their holiday activity for kids, the Krispy Kreme Klub and an associated event on KKK Wednesday. Not surprisingly, Facebookers pointed out the unfortunate association with the US hate group, and Krispy Kreme quickly publically apologized, had all material associated with their KKK and KKK Wednesday removed, and promised an investigation. In defense of the UK KK marketing team, they may have been unaware of the visceral reaction many people (and particularly US people) have to the KKK acronym. However, this is a great lesson in how branding can go awry when it spans multiple cultures.

In other cases, escaping an acronymnal (acrinomious?) blunder can be far more difficult—especially once it makes it into advertising and marketing campaigns. (Though it can be done; for example you probably don’t even crack a smile when referring to corporate giant IBM, but your 2-year-old may find it hilarious that you just admitted to performing a typically unspoken-about bodily function.) The following are some persistent classics. Some have lingered in spite of their unfortunate acronyms, and in other cases the acronym jokes have been embraced (or even intended) by their owners.

  • The CIA created a taskforce to deal with the WikiLeaks documents, and gave it an obvious name: the WikiLeaks Task Force. Wired magazine, and many others, pointed out that WTF was a truly appropriate name for the group, and the situation.
  • In another WTF example, the originally named Wisconsin Tourism Federation changed its name (which according to this post dated back to 1979, before the vulgar connotation of the acronym permeated popular culture) to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin.
  • In 2002 Microsoft released the “Critical Update Notification Tool” and after a short period of embarrassment quietly changed the name to “Critical Update Notification Utility” to avoid the unintended connotation of the original acronym. (A similar unfortunate acronym can be found used again and again in this 2014 scientific research paper.)
  • In 2009 the Iowa Department of Elder Affairs changed its name to the Department on Aging. Realizing that the state’s elderly may be unsettled by the DOA acronym, the name was changed again to the Iowa Department on Aging (IDA).
  • NJ Governor, and former presidential hopeful, Chris Christie formed a Political Action Committee (PAC) called leadershipmattersforamerica.org. The associated acronym LMFAO caused many to laugh heartily from the bottom, and not just at the prospect of Christie’s presidential aspirations.
  • For more classic examples of acronyms gone awry, see 10 acronyms with unintended double meanings.

Side Note: Politicians are famous for taking acronym use to new levels (highs or lows, depending on who you ask). They are famous for their “backronyms,” intentional acronyms created by lawmakers seeking attention for the bills they sponsor. For example: The Consumers Have Options for Molar Protection Act (CHOMP), and the Simplifying The Ambiguous Law, Keeping Everyone Reliably Safe Act (STALKERS). For more see Congressional acronym abuse, 1973-2013: An overly in-depth analysis of congressional acronym usage in bill names.

Unfortunate wording choices extend beyond politics and company and product names, they can often be found in website domain names as well. Just as with acronyms, in many cases (due to the need to string separate words together in URLs) perfectly innocuous names become laughable or offensive domain names. For example:

  • Specialty recycling company American Scrap Metal’s domain is Americanscrapmetal.com
  • A psychological therapist referral site in California originally called itself “TherapistFinder” and registered the domain therapistfinder.com. That domain is now owned by a link farm site, and the business rebranded as Counseling California.
  • The North Lake Tahoe tourist site uses domain name gotahoenorth.com.
  • For more examples (some old and shut down, some forwarding and renamed, and others exploiting the incoming traffic this type of post provides) see 30 Unintentionally Awful Domain Names.

All of these examples emphasize how important it is that you very carefully choose and review the naming choices you make—whether for a product name, your company name, your domain, or anything else you plan to use in public view. My previous post A Word on Words provides tips and tools you can use to help turn the perfect phrase for any purpose. Also worth checking out is this infographic which walks you through selecting a business name. And, if you do want to try to have some fun with acronyms, or if you want to be sure that the name you pick does not fall victim to an unintentional acronym, try this Acronym Generator from the University of Oregon.

That’s all for now from TotW.

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Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I’m the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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