Beckman pH meter, Model G
by Walt Hearn
If I had encountered tofu in the 1940s, I might not have tried eating it, but for sure I would have guessed that it was an acronym, like snafu.
An acronym is a word made up of the first (or first few) letters of a series of words. For this family publication, let's just say that snafu comes from the WWII phrase, "Situation Normal: All Fouled Up." An even worse military situation was fubar, or "Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition." If chaos careened into catastrophe, a third level of fouled-upness came into play; but since I was never in combat, I didn't learn that one. A more familiar acronym from WWII is radar (for RAdio Detection And Ranging). The word tofu, by the way, is made up of two Chinese syllables for soybean curd (豆腐).
The early Christians managed to "fly under the radar" of Roman or Jewish persecution by using the first letters of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior" to form the acronym ΙΧΘΥΣ or ichthys, the Greek word for "fish" (as in "ichtheology"). For reasons of security, they went a step further and used a wordless sketch of a fish as an identifying symbol. I've heard that in the first few centuries after the Resurrection, when two strangers met, a Christian might draw a curved line in the sand; if the other drew a second curved line to complete the simple outline of a fish, they knew they were both "Jesus people" who could be trusted. If anyone suspicious approached, they could quickly erase the symbol with their sandals.
For a descriptive term pronounced as separate letters rather than as a new word, linguists prefer the term "initialism." Thus, EPA is an initialism for the Environmental Protection Agency, whereas NASA (pronounced NASS-uh) is an acronym for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. Such shortcuts save space but can be confusing even after they've been defined the first time they appear in a text. In a news story last year about the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, the editor of Chemical & Engineering News made it clear that NOBCChE is intended as an acronym by including its pronunciation: (NO-buh-shay).
Editors must make judgment calls about what will be understood by potential readers. Anyone reading God & Nature will probably recognize ASA as an initialism for the American Scientific Affiliation, for example, but only chemists might be expected to know that ACS stands for the American Chemical Society. How about AAAS for the American Association for the Advancement of Science? It's almost an acronym with its own pronunciation (Triple-A-ESS). As a university professor, I concluded that lecturing had at least one advantage as a teaching method: it showed students how to pronounce new words they encountered in their textbooks.
The meaning of abbreviations can change with time. I remember when the initialism "ACE" referred to AcetylCholine Esterase, but now AChE is used for that enzyme and ACE (pronounced "Ace") stands for Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme. Or consider "CERN" (pronounced "Sern"), where physicists have been hunting for the Higgs boson (the so-called "God particle") and where the World Wide Web was born. What does CERN stand for? That's a bit harder to explain in a few words. The name of the laboratory comes from its parent organization, the Organisation Européene pour la Recherche Nucléaire, set up in 1954 by a group called the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, established two years earlier by 12 European governments. When the name was changed, they kept CERN as an acronym instead of using the less easily pronounced OERN. In English, that lab is known as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics but still referred to as CERN.
Not all acronyms are easy to remember, so it's tempting to name a project in a way that produces a memorable acronym. From reading The Science Teacher (journal of NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association) in the 1980s, I learned that high school teachers are tempted to do that sort of thing all the time. I encountered titles like "Radiation Activities for Youth Series" (RAYS) or "Physics Resources and Instructional Strategies for Motivating Students" (PRISMS). Our public servants do it, too. Last year I read about senior scientists in federal agencies urging Congress to repeal a law titled the "Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge" (STOCK) Act. Topping that was the Department of Education's "Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching" project (RESPECT) and NASA's "Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport" (INSIGHT).
In a sense, a chemical formula like H2O or HOH is an initialism, with the H from hydrogen and the O from oxygen. In "pH" the H stands for "hydrogen ion" in an abbreviation for "the negative logarithm of the hydrogen ion concentration (or, more precisely, activity)." Where does that "p" come from? Well, a logarithm or exponent is really a power (in English), puissance (in French), or Potenz (in German), a linguistic felicity that probably helped pH gain universal acceptance in the chemical literature. In fact that's the only place I've ever seen it. Of course, "PhD" is a different story altogether.
One scientific initialism that has moved beyond research papers into common usage is "DNA." Citizens at every educational level seem to know that DNA is what our genes are made of, and that our genes determine a lot about who we are. Consequently, Americans hear a lot of political rhetoric telling us things like, "the Protestant work ethic is deeply embedded in our DNA." Yet I doubt that many politicians could tell you that DNA stands for "DeoxyriboNucleic Acid."
For me, DNA has a special significance beyond its scientific importance. In the summer of 1963, when I was still a practicing biochemist, I was teaching an adult Sunday school class on the Book of Psalms. One week I gave the class an assignment for the following Sunday: to try to write a poem of their own in the spirit of the biblical Psalms. By Saturday night I realized that if nobody did the homework, the points I was hoping to make would be lost. So I hastily threw together two poems myself, a sonnet and the poem appearing elsewhere in this issue. (Beginner's luck: both eventually got into print, encouraging me to keep writing poems―though under less pressure.)
In the fall I sent my Scientist's Psalm to His magazine of IVCF (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship). In a few days I got a call from a young woman on the editorial staff saying that they liked the poem but she wondered if I had made a mistake. Depicting viruses, I had used the line, "Proteins now, and RNA." By 1963, DNA was in the general vocabulary but only biochemists knew about RNA. I had in mind the first virus to be crystallized (by Wendell Stanley at U.C. Berkeley in the 1930s), the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), which contained single-stranded RiboNucleic Acid (RNA). Since other viruses were by then known to contain deoxyribonucleic acid, I allowed the editor to change RNA to DNA to make the poem more accessible. I thought it remarkable that a young editor would feel confident enough to challenge a biochemistry professor on a biochemical matter. I guess she thought it remarkable that a biochemist would even try to write poetry.
Not long after that I got an idea for another contribution to His, a "higher critical study" of the same poem. I had just read a news story about a computer analysis of the New Testament epistles attributed to Paul, done by scholar A. Q. Morton of Scotland (allegedly author of Christianity in the Computer Age, 1964). My own "scholarly" article (footnotes and all) spoofed the speculative excesses of biblical criticism, such as the JEPD documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch. My "analysis" showed that the poem attributed to one Walter Hearn definitely had to be the work of more than one author. Some S (for scientist) material and P (for poet) material had obviously been cobbled together by another unknown source, dubbed R (for redactor). His accepted the article, which appeared in the March 1964 issue.
That's how I actually met that brash editor, Ginny (an abbreviation, at the time, for Virginia Ann Krauss). I told her that on a coming trip I'd have a two-hour layover at Chicago's O'Hare airport, so she offered to bring me a few copies of the March issue, hot off the press. I treated her to dinner at an airport cafe, and two years later we were married. In 2013 we celebrated our 47th wedding anniversary.
It must have been love, possibly in our DNA.