or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 2/8/15

   February 14th, 2015

Bible acronym: basic instructions before leaving EarthSometimes I think my ability to be easily amused is what makes me enjoy my job so much.

This week a patron walked up to the desk - he was a middle-aged guy, and he walked somewhat quickly up to the desk. He had that focused-yet-distracted look that tells you he was intently thinking about something and wanted immediate and fast help. When he got within a few feet of the desk, he said,

What's it called when there's a term for a word that everyone knows? Like "standard penetration test" is called S.P.T.. There's a word for that.

Here's when though my head - simultaneously:

  • I think he means "acronym"
  • Except the example he gave is more of an abbreviation, and not actually an acronym
  • It'd be kind of jerky to point that out to him
  • I certainly wouldn't consider S.P.T. meaning "standard penetration test" to fall under the category of "something everyone knows"
  • But perhaps it will after 50 Shades of Grey opens this weekend
  • Man my job is funny
  • I can't wait to post this on my blog
  • Oh, the patron is still waiting for an answer

Of course all this happened in a split second, and when I said, "Do you mean 'acronym?'" the patron was pleased and relived, thanked me, and walked away. I never actually saw him again after that, but the whole situation still put me in a good mood.

By the way, my favorite acronyms are NASA and SCUBA. My most pet-peevily-misused acronym is PIN - as in, "PIN number." Ugh, that makes me cringe every time.

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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 2/8/15”

  1. The Librarian With No Name Says:

    My favorite is “taser,” for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.” I loved Tom Swift as a kid, it’s a surprisingly nerdy origin for such a serious-business device, and “electric rifle” sounds really cool.

    Plus, once you learn it you’ll never spell it “tazer” again.

  2. Sarah Says:

    YES to being annoying by people saying PIN number! I’ll also add ATM machine, seeing as ATM means automated teller machine.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @The Librarian: I had no idea, that’s awesome, and I agree with every single point you made.

    @Sarah: Totally, and “ISBN number” is another. In fact, I was a business major in undergrad, and I constantly caught myself saying “SIC code,” and then having to remind myself that it was okay.

    Oh, and I just got back from the grocery store where I was reminded of another of my favorites: NECCO!

  4. Macee Says:

    In cataloging land, that’s known as an initialism.

  5. Denise Says:

    How about ILS system? This one is particularly annoying to me since it’s usually librarians making the mistake.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Macee: Yes! That’s more precise (well, actually accurate) but less common, so I didn’t think that’s what he meant. And for some reason, it satisfies me greatly to know that distinction exists.

    @Denise: you know, I don’t know that I’ve noticed that one before – I’m pretty sure I just say ILS. Hmm, a new one to watch for – thanks!

  7. Mary H. White Says:

    Macee is correct. When the initials create a pronounceable (new) ‘word’ — such as RADAR — then it’s an acronym. When the initials don’t create a pronounceable word, — such as SPT — then it’s an initialism.

  8. The Librarian With No Name Says:

    Bonus round: is IOU an initialism, an abbreviation, or a rebus?

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Mary: thank you for writing that out clearly. And if I’m correct, I think both acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations.

    @The Librarian: that’s a trick question! It’s actually an anagram of OUI, oui?