Acronyms long ago successfully stormed the academe, and over the last few weeks the dons have been ringing their bells about TEF, REF, EJRA—that especially; and no doubt several more will soon be clanking their articulated chains before us.

I don’t mind acronyms; what really gets me is people in meetings saying they will ‘speak to’ a document or proposal, when they mean ‘speak about’. Yet another piece of ‘committiolect’, as I dub it, and it’s shameful watching eminent sociopaths pretending to fit in in this ghastly way.

‘Acronym’ comes from the words for ‘highest, topmost’ and ‘name’, the first term here standing for the foremost letter of a word. A related compound is ‘acrophony’ (‘topmost sound’), the fundamental principle of all alphabetic writing. Many early scripts tended to draw pictures or ideographs for things or ideas, thus * for ‘star’, and so on. Someone then had the bright idea that if * might stand not for ‘star’ but for the sound ‘s’, and if we could repurpose another 20 or so such pictures in this way, then we could start to spell out any words by writing down their sound-strings. ‘Star’ becomes a run of pictures of, say, ‘star’, ‘trout’, ‘apple’, and ‘radish’. Alphabetic scripts, however, threaten to use up lots of space - the picture of a * doesn’t take long to draw - and especially for inscriptions (these take a long time to carve) or coins (there is not much space) acronyms became essential.

Working out ancient acronyms was a renaissance discipline in itself, and the first major book on Oxford marbles, the Marmora Oxoniensia (1676), contains as an appendix the very handy dictionary by Sertorius Ursatus of such abbreviations.

At the other extreme, the longest word in Greek contains 171 letters and appears in Euripides’s Assemblywomen, a play about women seizing control of Athens, abolishing private property, and enforcing a law whereby each man may sleep with whatever woman he likes, as long as he first sleeps with all the uglier women in the city.

The word starts ‘Lopado …’ and ends ‘…pterygon’, and is the name of a dish comprising all sorts of different foods, all present in this huge farrago of a word.

‘Satire’ as a word, indeed, comes from this very notion of the dish stuffed with all sorts of different foods. ‘Satire’, etymologically, means ‘full’, from the Latin phrase ‘lanx satura’ or ‘full dish’—a medley of different kinds. This is perhaps one reason why ‘satire’ can be found in many different literary forms; it’s a way of thinking rather than a particular genre.

So we must fight ‘commitiolect’ acronyms with our own satirical ones. The best Oxonian ones I have recently heard are: ‘NOOBs’ (North Oxford Old Bags) and ‘POODs’ (Patronising Old Oxford Dons). I would now like to share with you a new game, real or imagined, and I invite readers to contribute. It’s called OhNO! and stands for ‘Overheard in North Oxford’. A real one I heard the other day outside M&S was: ‘Now then Jacob, we must learn to think of others’. Reader, over to you.