Electronic Design

Spell It Out For Me

A couple of days ago, our managing editor sent an e-mail to us technology editors to remind us to spell out acronyms the first time we use them in a story. "They may be common and easily understood by us editors, but they aren't to many of our readers, which include a growing number of students and foreign speakers," he said.

That got me thinking about various cultures and their specialized terminology. Even when we think we know what something means, over the course of a few years the meaning of the acronym, not to mention the application, can change dramatically. Take LVDS (low-voltage differential signaling) for instance. When I started covering analog/power for Electronic Design, it had been several years since I had really looked at signal buses. As a result, when I heard the term LVDS I thought, "Yeah, that's like ECL (emitter-coupled logic threshold levels), but without the negative voltage swings." Then National's Steve Kempainen explained LVDS' new role in serial backplane buses and in getting data through the hinges on clamshell mobile phones. LVDS, it turns out, is all but ubiquitous these days.

Just as the applications for technologies represented by acronyms change, so, sometimes, do the acronyms themselves. Back in the early '90s, when I managed Cypress Semiconductor's contributed-articles program, high-speed SRAM was ECL, and the term we used for low-voltage signaling without negative excursions was PECL, which we all agreed meant "pseudo-ECL." These days, I am informed by Maxim's ever-handy Electrical Engineering Glossary (bookmark this site — it's extraordinarily useful: http://www.maxim-ic.com/glossary/index.cfm/) that PECL now means "positive-referenced emitter-coupled logic." Okay, that's a whole lot more informative than "pseudo-ECL."

I have to admit that I was a little surprised by our managing editor's e-mail. Surely, I thought, in today's culture nobody stays ignorant of verbal shortcuts. Usenet newsgroup abbreviations like AFAIK ("as far as I know") that date as far back as 1979 are commonplace in all of today's text-messaging modalities. Even if people don't know what an acronym means, they can easily tap into any search engine and find out in seconds.

To put this in perspective, consider this. While dining with two other baby-boomers and two college seniors the other night, the pronunciation and meaning of the term "pwn3d" came up. A gamer's term, most people who use "pwn3d" pronounce the word "owned." So if I understand it correctly, a player who has been thoroughly trounced by another player has been pwn3d. The idiosyncratic spelling is a conscious effort to duplicate the effects of fast thumb typing on a Blackberry-sized keyboard. (i.e., on a QWERTY layout, "p" is adjacent to "o" and "3" is adjacent to "e.")

Pwn3d is reminiscent of l337 or "leet" (q.v. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leet). (The Latin abbreviation, q.v., by the way, stands for "quod vide," which in turn means, "which see." That is something we all learned doing term papers in high school, right?) But I suspect that l337 is "obsol337" these days, and "pwn3d" comes from thumb typing.

In any event, it happens that I was up to speed on pwn3d, a fact that surprised the other old-timers at my dinner party and made the college kids blink a little. But the reason I know the meaning of the word is fairly humdrum. I frequent an on-line motorcycle forum with a decidedly young sportbike demographic. The term came up a few times and I Googled it.

That little dinner party conversation came to mind when I read that e-mail. "Why don't these readers just use a search engine when they encounter unfamiliar acronyms?" I thought. Heaven knows, that's what I do with a good portion of the press releases that pop up on my computer every week. But then I realized the wisdom of our editor's dictum. I have the benefit of long experience. I've seen the use of both "pseudo-ECL" and "positive-referenced emitter-coupled logic." And if I have an obsolete notion of the importance of LVDS, the companies I write about have countless brilliant employees who are willing and eager to clue me in to the 21st century meaning without making me feel embarrassed. None of that is necessarily true for new readers and readers whose first language is not English. And even if English is one's native tongue, deciding whether RTL is more likely to mean "register transfer language" or "resistor-transistor logic" depends on your familiarity with ancient process technologies and EDA (engineering design automation).

So henceforth, I shall ensure that my copy is NALU (no acronym left unelucidated).

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