11/15/2014 05:48 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2015


I was listening to a defense expert recently -- everyone who speaks in Washington is an expert -- who kept referring to the AUMF. I missed much of his talk while I tried to remember what those letters stand for. It finally came to me -- the Authorization for Use of Military Force that is the legislative basis for the President's unilateral commitment of U.S. forces to combat.

As I was mulling that over back in my office I picked up the summer edition of Army Communicator magazine, an official publication of the Signal Corps which I was once privileged to command. At the end of almost every article there is a legend that informs the reader what the various acronyms stand for. The one I just read has 29 such entries -- such as BDOC for Base Defense Operations Center; FSR for Field Support Representative; MLOS for Microwave Line of Sight; SRW for Soldier Radio Waveform; and my favorite, RIP for Relief in Place. (Perhaps that is why it appears on so many gravestones!)

It's even worse than it sounds. In that particular article, there are at least two acronyms that do not appear in the legend. The reader is left to wonder what they stand for.

Acronyms and passive verbs (Mistakes were made) are the most prominent characteristics of the Washington argot that is so mystifying to normal humans outside the Beltway. It is similar to the insider lingo employed by lawyers and doctors, but lawyers and doctors employ their specialized terminology primarily to communicate information about concepts largely limited to their professions. In contrast, Washington talk, sometimes called bureaucratese, exists to make the speaker or writer seem wise and important while conveying the most mundane of thoughts, or sometimes deliberately trying to mislead the audience.

Large scale use of acronyms first came into use during the 1930s when the government was spawning agencies left and right to deal with The Great Depression: the NRA for National Recovery Administration; CCC for Civilian Conservation Corps; SEC for Securities and Exchange Commission; and the like. It got another boost in the 1970s when the government underwent another expansion: EPA for the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, CPSC for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and so forth.

It is one thing when you are writing for a specialized audience that understands your terminology, but when you have to include legends to explain your terms at the end of articles written expressly for your target audience, I believe we can safely assume we have passed the point of diminishing returns. The Signal Corps exists to communicate. Effective communication depends on short, simple, declarative sentences free of jargon. The U.S. Army needs some tough minded English teachers and editors among its ranks.


Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.