There are, a simple tap on the calculator concludes, 17576 different possible Three letter Acronyms available from our 26 letter alphabet. The Russians can rustle up twice as many. Their alphabet is 33 letters (35,937 combinations). I blame the KGB (КГБ), although to be fair The global use of TLAs is, as I suspected an American export, and much more recent than anybody’s alphabet. A comprehensive list of TLAs can be found at The Australian Kid’s Encyclopedia. They lay the blame for these ALBs (annoying Little Bastards; Ok, I made that one up!) firmly at the feet of FDR –
TLAs became common in the United States during the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, including NRA for National Recovery Administration[?], and TVA for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Detractors of President Roosevelt’s policies called the new agencies “alphabet soup.”The Australian Kid’s Encyclopedia
in any alphabet there are finite number of TLAs. There are certain to be overlaps and multiple uses . Ambiguities, misunderstandings and even puns are inevitably the consequence of shorter words. A quick look to see what TLA actually stands for, gives an intriguing and incomplete list:
TLA – three letter acronyms in use:
- Tennessee Library Association, a professional organization for librarians in Tennessee
- Texas Library Association, a professional organization for librarians in Texas
- Tour de las Américas, a professional golf tour in Latin America
- The Littlehampton Academy, school in Sussex, England
- Theatre of Living Arts, a music venue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. US
- Tlaxcala (ISO 3166-2:MX code MX-TLA), a Mexican state
- Temporal light artefacts, undesired visual effects caused by light modulations
- Temporal logic of actions, a logic used to describe behaviours of concurrent systems
- Three-letter acronym or abbreviation
- Teaching & Learning Academy, English teacher training programme
- Southwestern Tepehuán language (ISO 639-3 code), from North-Western Mexico
- Tom Lord’s Arch, a revision control system now known as GNU arc
The WWW, TLDs, URLs, SEO…. etc .. DOH! Three letter acronyms and the internet
AS one can quickly glean from the list above, the petri dish for spawning millions of conflicting, competing and confusing three letter acronyms was of course the internet. The early days of the internet were a veritable goldrush of TLD (Top Level domain) registrations. Small, tech savvy upstarts, jostled with organisations, big companies, and quite a few speculative individuals to establish a foothold on the new media. Short was good, short was modern, and suddenly even well established big name companies were suddenly getting hip and rebranding to three letter acronyms. In some cases slowness out of the starting blocks led to some amusing spats.
I was working for a press cuttings company in the 1980 and 1990s and some of the stories floating around certainly brightened up our nights. I can’t vouch for their veracity, some of them were probably made up!
British Airports Authority’s privatisation in 1986 and its subsequent rebranding as BAA hit a slight snag when it was discovered BAA.com had been registered by a sheep “appreciation” society. The airports authority has now changed its name to Heathrow Airport Holdings (HAH) probably causing the sheep fanciers to LOL. Incidentally BAA.com is registered by HAH, but not used.
The BBC was chagrined to discover the Baltimore Basketball Club had got there first.
Initially grabbing a three letter acronym as a domain name, (you could always make up what the initials stood for later) was a fairly good way of getting the jump on a big company, but now a lot of these companies have discovered that a longer, more descriptive name will do better for their SEO.
Three letter acronyms are of course a godsend to organisations who need simple codes to describe places and things. Airlines have carrier codes, train companies have station codes, ports have codes, post offices have codes, Car registrations have a three letter element. In fact lots of three letter codes exist. some are three letter acronyms, some are not. If we take a three letter acronym to mean the first letter of a three word phrase and not just the first three letters of a word then that narrows it down… a bit.
Three letter acronyms at work.
Three letter acronyms are at their finest when working in the confines of a occupation. It is a sign of belonging to be able to rattle off a list of important sounding TLAs which can serve to disguise the true phrase behind a cuddly sounding abbreviation. The military love them. From MIA, KIA down to POW and even two TLA TLAs! (Temporary living allowance and Theater Logistics Analysis!). Police love them. DUI, ABH, GBH, ARV and share with the military, a passion for anything with tactical or strategic as the first word. The medical profession love them; a disease or syndrome hasn’t arrived until its coined a three letter acronym. Economics loves its RPI and GDP, Governments love their DOD, MOD and any starting with Ministry of, or Department of
And three letter acronyms at play
Not coy about, well, anything, sex has a whole telephone directory of three letter acronyms which you will just have to go and look up for yourselves!
Three Letter acronyms FAQ
As someone whose computer knowledge is strictly NTK, I often find myself referring to FAQs and getting TIA (Totally Incomprehensible Answers -Yes! another I made up) from ISP to DNS, FTP by LAN, SSL, PHP, CSS, XHL.. WTF! IMO we need a bigger alphabet!
Three letter acronyms and the long arm of the government
USA government agencies seem to still stick to three letter acronyms. Thanks to American TV exports everybody knows what they stand for and nobody wants to mess with butch ex-marines wearing bomber jackets with CIA, FBI, or CTU stencilled in big yellow letters on the back. Somebody should warn the National Sheep Association though.
Time zone three letter acronyms
Time spans the globe and its myriad languages. There are presently 38 different time zones. The standard measurement used to be set from GMT (Greenwich mean time), established by the lobbing of many cannonballs. This however changed in 1963 with the introduction of UTC (co-ordinated Universal Time in English and Temps Universel Coordonné in French). Apparently the French and the English argued over the abbreviation and to avoid more lobbing of cannonballs, a compromise was reached. So now we have a three letter acronym that isn’t actually a three letter acronym! Of course each time zone has its own TLA just to confuse matters.
The not so humble TXT
Mobile phones arrived in the 1980’s and became actually mobile in the 1990s. Apparently there was a little bit of signal left over and the phone companies decided to let users send short message through this spare bit for free. No one wants to type on a tiny non-qwerty phone keyboard argued the highly paid executives at the big phone companies. How wrong they were. Within a decade thumbs were being dislocated across the world as the young grabbed that almost overlooked channel as their own. They soon overcame the length limitation and often their parents! by using abbreviated code for common phrases.
Smart phones were just round the corner. Jack Bauer was in his CTU SUV, and downloading to his PDA. Qwerty keyboards, longer texting, email, messaging, and posts arrived. Grown ups got it PDQ and three letter acronyms escaped from their military, technology and utilitarian confines.