Saturday, June 19, 2004

Machine Machines and Number Numbers

I wonder what you’d call a machine whose function was to make automatic teller machines (ATMs). Would it be called an ATM machine? Well, no, of course not, since ATM machine means the same thing as plain old ATM: If you see a sign saying “ATM machine inside” when you enter a grocery store, you will find an ordinary ATM, and you won't find some other kind of machine that has something to do with ATMs.

This kind of redundancy also occurs with acronyms whose final N stands for number. The ones I can think of right now are PIN number, VIN number, and ISBN number. I also recently heard someone talk about an IM message, referring not to a message regarding an instant message, but to an ordinary instant message.

I’ve heard plenty of people (including myself) complain about this careless treatment of acronyms, including a character in the comic strip Jump Start, in the installment from December 17, 2002:

Son: There’s an ATM machine next to the escalators.
Mom: Really? An automated teller machine machine?
Son: Mom, you’re repeating yourself.
Mom: I am?
Son: You said the word “machine” twice.
Mom: You’re the one who called it an “ATM machine.” “Machine” is what the “M” stands for in the acronym “ATM.”
Son: Just enter your PIN number, willya?
Mom: Personal identification number number?
But we must go beyond mere complaining, and ask ourselves, “Why?” OK, OK, we linguists must go beyond mere complaining, etc., but anyway: Why is it that speakers tend to redundantly expand these acronyms? Why don’t we ever hear about AT machines, PI numbers, or I-messages? (Actually, I have heard about the last item, but only in anger-management contexts.) Right now, I don't know, so instead, I’ll ask “When?” When, exactly, are acronyms subject to this kind of expansion? The four data points so far have several things in common:

  1. Phonetic: They all end in a nasal consonant (M or N).
  2. Syntactic: They are all common nouns (not proper nouns, such as FBI).
  3. Semantic: The final letter stands for the “main” noun (which linguists refer to as the head noun). That is, an ATM is a kind of Machine; PINs, VINs, and ISBNs are kinds of Numbers; and an IM is a kind of Message.

So far, then, any combination of these facts could be the magic combination that correlates with a tendency to be redundantly expanded. Let’s check them one by one.

Phonetic: Are there redundantly expanded acronyms ending in letters other than M or N? The closest I can think of is scuba gear, which isn’t quite an example of what we’re looking for (it would be if people called it scuba apparatus). When Dad worked at a refinery, there was a device technically known as the Fluidized Catalytic Cracking Unit, or FCCU. Does anyone ever call this an FCCU unit? I don’t know; all I know is what Dad and his coworkers called it, which I won’t write here out of respect for the high standards of Glen’s blog. What about OR room, or ER room? I haven’t heard these, but I could imagine them being out there.

Syntactic: Are there redundantly expanded acronyms that are parts of speech other than common nouns? I can’t think of any. You’d better get here PDQ quick sounds pretty bad to me (i.e., even worse than ATM machine, etc.).

Semantic: Are there redundantly expanded acronyms whose head noun is abbreviated by a letter other than the last one? Has anyone ever heard someone talk about the OMB office, or the BLM bureau? For a better comparison, I should find similar acronyms that aren’t proper nouns, though. Let’s see … OK, how about ETA time? I’ve never heard it, but I suppose it could be out there.

My working hypothesis, then, is that redundant acronym expansion (RAE for short; “RAE expansion” for medium) happens only for acronyms that are nouns, and whose head noun is abbreviated by the final letter. I imagine there are further restrictions, too. Even better than being able to say “RAE occurs only under conditions X, Y, and Z,” would be to be able to say, “… and always under these conditions (for speakers who permit RAE).” I’m nowhere near that point, though. Submissions of acronyms that have undergone RAE are welcomed, as are submissions of acronyms that in your personal opinion could not undergo RAE.


Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Bar Flight

There are two bars near my home in Studio City, CA, one called Clear and the other called Sapphire. They are located within one block of each other, and both aim at approximately the same demographic (single 20- to 30-somethings). When I first visited these bars, just over a year ago, Clear was the undoubted champ. On Friday and Saturday nights, people would line up and wait for an hour or more to get in; and even on weeknights, Clear could still get a respectable crowd. Sapphire, on the other hand, subsisted on Clear’s overflow – the people who got fed up with waiting at the door on weekends. On weeknights, Sapphire was almost deserted.

After frequenting Clear and (occasionally) Sapphire for two or three months, I went on a several-month hiatus. Now I’ve returned to the scene, and a transformation has taken place. Sapphire now dominates, with Clear picking up the scraps. On a weeknight, when Sapphire is about half-full, Clear is a ghost town. On weekends, Sapphire fills up first, with the overflow going to Clear. Sapphire does not usually have a line, though, so Clear’s overflow crowd can be substantial.

What happened? What we have here is a textbook case of network externalities. Network externalities exist when consumers’ satisfaction from a good or service increases with the number of other customers using it. In the case of bars and nightclubs, customers may care about ambience and service, but they care even more about meeting and mingling with other people – especially members of the opposite sex. As a result, customers choosing between two near-equivalent bars will tend to choose the one with the larger crowd, at least up to a point. The result is herding: one bar will attract large numbers, while the other remains largely empty. If people did not care about the actions of other customers, we would expect a more even distribution of customers across locations.

Network externalities set the stage for multiple equilibria. Just as left-side-driving and right-side-driving are both viable equilibria of the sides-of-the-road game, most-people-go-to-Clear and most-people-go-to-Sapphire are both viable equilibria of the choose-your-bar game. Which equilibrium actually occurs can result entirely from random factors (slightly more people happened to visit Clear early on, resulting in a snowball effect leading to Clear’s dominance), or it can result from historical factors (Clear might have opened a short while before Sapphire did).

But what explains the switch from Clear to Sapphire? I surmise that as Studio City became known as something of a Valley hotspot, more and more people found themselves having to wait too long to get into Clear. Eventually, Sapphire was getting enough overflow traffic that it reached the tipping point (another common feature of network externality situations). People realized that, at least on weekends, there would be enough people at both bars to make them worthwhile. Sapphire’s reputation as a place to meet-and-mingle caught up with Clear’s, and the expectations transferred over to the weekdays as well. For some relatively short period of time, people might even have randomized between the two locations, because either place could have had the better crowd on any given night. But that kind of equilibrium is unstable, just as randomizing over left-side-driving and right-side-driving is unstable. Very small differences in choices can tip the balance in favor of one of two extremes. In this case, a small handful of committed Sapphire patrons might have snowballed into the current Sapphire equilibrium.

UPDATE: Read my further analysis here.


Monday, June 14, 2004

Supreme Court Punts on Pledge Case

Back in March, I observed that the “under God” crowd could only come out on top in the Pledge case by technical knock-out, by having the case vacated on grounds of standing. Well, they got their TKO.

Jacob Levy’s comments are on point: “On the standing question itself I have no view; I like to see stringent standing requirements, but think that they're pretty hard to make sense of in establishment clause cases, since by definition establishment that doesn't also impair free exercise doesn't commit any easily-cognizable harm against any easily-identified individual.” Exactly. In principle, does it really matter that Michael Newdow was not the custodial parent of a child in school? Is he not, like everyone else in our society, affected by the state’s decision to incorporate religious affirmations in the daily rituals of the public schools?