Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: April 2, 2022, 8:34 a.m. Humanist 35.631 - the acronymic problematic

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 631.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
                Submit to:

        Date: 2022-04-01 11:44:02+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.624: acronyms problematic?

Dear Willard,

I don't think acronyms lose meaning, nor come to obscure their
meaning.  Rather, their meaning changes.

Take, as you do, the AI of Artificial Intelligence.  At the
beginning, and during its early years, AI meant what people in
the (then new) field worked on: artificial forms of
intelligence.  In more recent times, AI has moved from being
an acronym to being a noun (a lexical item, to give it it's
posh name).  So we now hear of AIs, as if people in AI work on
making AIs, like people who work in History work on making
histories, or people in Chemistry work on making chemicals.
(This doesn't work for the CS of Computer Science, a
contemporary neighbour of AI. We can't say people in CS work
on making CSs, but let's not worry about that.)

It's all rather circular, of course.  If you ask what an AI is
you get told it's some kind of intelligent thing like us, but
built by people, as if intelligence can now have an existence
of it's own, rather than being some quality of being an animal
(or plant, perhaps), as it used to be understood.  But this I
see as just another example of the way we freely skate around
on the big ice rink of meaning.  It's a psychedelic ice rink.
We skate to patches of a particular colour, but, as we skate
over them, their colour changes, so that 'AI' is now what you
must say your product has if you want to sell it well.  It
means glitter.

People used to complain that 'Artificial Intelligence' was
oxymoronic.  I would say 'Machine Learning', ML, is just daft.
There's no learning going on -- it's properly understood as
programming with data (loads and loads of data).  It's not
training either.  It's computer programming.  And it's not a
machine doing it.  The machine here is the computer that runs
the program that someone built.  ML just sounds grander: more
glitter, again.

So what of DH? Well, if you ask me, whenever I hear DH I
immediately think of H D Lawrence.  I can't help it.  Somehow
this got stuck in my head, and no amount of reading this good
list has unstuck it.  More seriously, I can see why you worry.
The 'digital' seems a bit arbitrary.  Chosen, may be, more for
its flavour than it's useful meaning giving.  The 'humanities'
seems good to me, but I'm not of its disciplines, so I may be
blind to its difficulties.  Still, how about HdD: Humanities
done Digitally?  Or perhaps HdC: Humanities done
Computationally.  ...  As I skate swiftly off to the dark red
end :)

Best regards,


> On 30 Mar 2022, at 07:59, Humanist <> wrote:
>              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 624.
>        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
>                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
>                Submit to:
>        Date: 2022-03-29 05:34:32+00:00
>        From: Willard McCarty <>
>        Subject: acronyms
> Acronyms are handy, economical, useful for avoding repetition of some
> phrase that in the repetition begins to lose meaning anyhow. But they
> can also exclude outsiders and in their common usage slip from
> abbreviation to a lexical item that hides its origins.
> There are many perfectly innocent examples legible to insiders
> but puzzle those not in the know. This can be a problem if, for example,
> there would be value (as often the case) in attracting outsiders. I
> come across many announcements of potential interest if not great value
> to members of Humanist that require me to do a fair bit of looking to figure
> out what the acronyms mean. I cannot help but think that these
> announcements are (in all likelihood unintentionally) carrying the
> subliminal message, "Go away, you are not wanted here".
> Then there are examples of acronyms for subjects, such as 'AI', which
> are more of a problem. In the case of AI, by not spelling out 'artificial
> intelligence', the acronym becomes a lexical item of its own, with no
> 'artificial' or 'intelligence' to stir one to question or think about the
> subject. 'AI' thus becomes an acronymised package which we take in,
> start talking about etc. without ever wondering what's inside. We just
> swallow the pill and start feeling the effects.
> It is for this reason that 'DH' as well bothers me. I find myself wondering,
> what about the 'digital', what about the 'humanities', what about their
> collision? Once upon a time, I favoured 'humanities computing' because
> the apparent oxymoron seemed a good place to start thinking about the
> subject. Isn't it the case that when you put on a uniform you become
> more identified with a group? This has its advantages, of course.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty,
> Professor emeritus, King's College London;
> Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

Unsubscribe at:
List posts to:
List info and archives at at:
Listmember interface at:
Subscribe at: