COMMUNICATION

Kenyans’ love affair with abbreviations

There’s a time and place for abbreviating and many Kenyans seem oblivious to that.

In Summary
  • Some of the abbreviations that confuse, irritate, and are negated include IG, AG, PAC.
  • And as for abbreviations which distort the meaningful words that underlie them, I give you SGR and BBI.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.  – Oscar Wilde

I wasn’t travelling nor was I on a train but I was looking through an old diary when I came across sensational extemporaneous notes I had jotted down titled; Kenya – a land where no word or phrase is safe from abbreviation. We love abbreviating everything – most times needlessly.

The old diary and the notes date back to 2013-2014. This was around the time six prominent Kenyans, among them the President and his deputy, were having legal issues with the International Criminal Court. Naturally all the local news outlets covered this and everywhere you looked it was ICC this and ICC that.

 

It just so happened that at about the same time there was a lot of buzz globally surrounding cricket; a sport whose governing body was the much more widely known ICC back then; namely International Cricket Council. It occurred to me in my notes at the time that a foreigner from far away reading, watching and listening to Kenyan news, was probably very confused at the sudden craze for cricket in Kenya with all that talk of ICC.

Abbreviations are useful when you need to squeeze a lot of writing into a small space. They also come in handy when there is a long, cumbersome phrase in the picture that one needs to pronounce, but there’s a time and place for abbreviating and many Kenyans seem oblivious to that.

 
I think our fondness for abbreviation is to create the impression that the abbreviated word is complicated and impressive. The problem with abbreviating anything we can get our hands on however is it saddles the reader or listener with the chore of deciphering meaning giving him, or her, a headache.

I’m not saying abbreviations should be completely avoided. I’m saying using them as a default like many news anchors, reporters and some in the general public do largely confuses, irritates, negates the very use of an abbreviation, and even distorts meaning.

Some of the abbreviations that confuse, irritate, and are negated include IG, AG, PAC. These stand for Inspector General of Police, Attorney General, and Public Accounts Committee. Why abbreviate these while reading the news? They just roll off the tongue unlike say, Director of Public Prosecutions which is a bit of a tongue-twister and therefore makes sense to abbreviate.

And as for abbreviations which distort the meaningful words that underlie them, I give you SGR and BBI. Building Bridges Initiative is an initiative to build bridges. It’s a simple enough concept to grasp and easy to pronounce. But then we had to go and abbreviate it to BBI, an entirely different contraption that is having the opposite effect of building bridges.

Standard gauge railway simply means a railway with a track gauge of 4ft 8 ½ inches. Worldwide there are Broad gauge, Metre gauge, and Narrow gauge railways and gauge here refers to the spacing between the rails.

Now does this sound anything like the government edict on cargo transport, secretive loan agreement, budget overruns, Mombasa businesses closing, expensive but loss-making railway line the abbreviation SGR has come to stand for?

 

I think our fondness for abbreviation is to create the impression that the abbreviated word is complicated and impressive. The problem with abbreviating anything we can get our hands on however is it saddles the reader or listener with the chore of deciphering meaning giving him, or her, a headache.

So let’s communicate more and abbreviate less, shall we?