RAS Syndrome, ATM Machines, and PIN Numbers

ATM Machine - RAS SyndromeBack in June, I wrote, Less vs Fewer: Pedantry at the Grocery Store. It told the story of my running into a grammar pedant at the Whole Foods. He was very happy that the express checkout said “15 items or fewer” and not “15 items or less.” Being a grammar liberal, I was not impressed. In the article, I responded, “Worrying about less vs fewer is just foolish. Or fatuous. Or silly. Oh my God! What is the exact right word to describe this?! I’m sure there are people buying eggplants in Whole Foods right now who won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.”

Jurgan commented that he was more understanding of the issue. Then he mentioned one thing that really bothered him was things like “ATM machine.” The point being that ATM stands for “automated teller machine.” So when one says “ATM machine,” one is saying “automated teller machine machine.” These are the kinds of things that do drive people a bit crazy. As you will see, they do not generally drive me crazy.

The RAS Syndrome

A while after that, a writer I work with a lot, Claire Broadley, sent me a link to the Wikipedia page on RAS Syndrome. It came along with a note that said she thought I might enjoy it. Indeed! For you see, RAS is an acronym for “redundant acronym syndrome” So RAS Syndrome is redundant acronym syndrome syndrome. “ATM machine” is one of the big examples of this. The page also lists PIN (personal identification number) number. In fact, RAS Syndrome is often referred to as PNS Syndrome: PIN Number Syndrome Syndrome. And that is just delicious: personal identification number number syndrome syndrome. Admittedly, not as good as Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. But still: very good.

I understand how certain things will just send a chill down the spine. “AIDS syndrome” bothers me… But ATM and PIN? I don’t think they are acronyms anymore.

Wikipedia also goes to the trouble of explaining, “The term RAS Syndrome is intentionally redundant…” That makes me think of, “Take my wife, as in ‘consider my wife’… Please! In the different sense of ‘take’ you see. I was implying that you should consider my wife but I was really just saying that you should take her off my hands! This is because I don’t like my wife very much!” I don’t think many people were scratching their heads, “Don’t they realize they’ve done the same thing with RAS Syndrome that they’re complaining about?!”

Let’s All Be Understanding

I am inclined to be forgiving of the RAS Syndrome. And I’m hardly alone. Wikipedia quotes Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words as saying, “Not all repetition is bad. It can be used for effect… or for clarity, or in deference to idiom…. ‘SALT talks’ and ‘HIV virus’ are… technically redundant because the second word is already contained in the preceding abbreviation, but only the ultra-finicky would deplore them.”

This is an excellent point that many people miss: we aren’t only trying to do one thing with language. But I would go further. Precision is well down the list of what we want when writing. It is rarely the case that a piece of writing will be ruined because one used “silly” when “facetious” was more precise.

When Do Acronyms Stop Being Acronyms?

But when it comes to the RAS Syndrome, are we really so sure that it is redundant. Consider the ATM. I remember, being perhaps 8-years-old, when our town got its first automated teller machine. You could take out a maximum of $50 per day, and you could only take out cash in $25 increments: a twenty and a five. But even being there at the very start, I don’t think of ATM as an acronym. And I haven’t for decades. The same is true of PIN, which was an acronym almost the moment it was a phrase.

Now I understand how certain things will just send a chill down the spine. “AIDS syndrome” bothers me — largely because of the emotional power of “AIDS” and that it has never quite stopped being an acronym. But ATM and PIN? I don’t think they are acronyms anymore. So I can understand people bristling at “PIN number,” but I don’t think they have any cause to feel superior about it. And that is exactly what most people do do.

Apparently, the term RAS Syndrome was coined in a New Scientist feedback column. And whoever came up with it must be applauded. Because I think it helps everyone treat the issue with the gentle amusement that it deserves.

Afterword

According to New Scientist, the “NT” in Windows NT did not stand for “New Technology,” but rather “Northern Telecom.” This is not actually true. Once Microsoft licensed “NT,” it explicitly used it to mean “New Technology.” I remember. I was there during the NT-OS/2 wars. So “NT technology,” which Microsoft used all the time, was, in fact, an example of the RAS Syndrome.

10 thoughts on “RAS Syndrome, ATM Machines, and PIN Numbers

  1. A word is only redundant if it doesn’t add any information. “PIN number” isn’t redundant when spoken aloud, because the phoneme “PIN” could be interpreted as “personal identification number,” or “a small metal object used for sewing” or “a plastic tube with ink used for writing.” So saying “PIN number,” while technically repetitive, does carry more information than “PIN.” But “ATM machine?” If I say “ATM,” is there anything else I could possibly mean than “automated teller machine?” I can’t think of anything, and I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t know what I meant if I just said “ATM.” So what is the value of the two extra syllables “machine?” Why do people waste their breath saying an extra word that carries no information?

    • So if the cashier at the grocery store said, “Please enter you PIN” you would pull out a ballpoint? :-) My point is that while we all have things that drive us crazy, the truth is that language is so complicated that we really are lost. But that’s why I find it so fascinating and fun.

      Note: you could save a syllable by saying “atom” instead of “A-T-M” — if the point were efficiency. I think “cash machine” would be preferable. I mean, really: automated teller machine?! That’s an awful construction! And it strikes me as redundant too. Isn’t it just a teller machine? Or bank teller machine? Why add automated to the construction? But we say ATM for historical reasons, just as many people say “ATM machine” for historical reasons. That is: people repeat what they hear. At least that’s what I think, ATM.

  2. Ah, NT. I remember doing a day of reading on it. According to some source, at the time, MS stated it did not stand for anything.
    Techs have stated otherwise.
    When it comes to networking, it was said to mean “Never There” while other MS naysayers said it meant, “Not Today, Not Tomorrow either.”
    There was a third humourish one, if anyone can recall….

    • I had forgotten that NT kept being delayed. But in Microsoft’s defense, it was their first operating system. And a fine one.

  3. Here’s a similar thing I enjoy. When a new guy bought the Anaheim Angels ballclub from Disney in 2005, he wanted the name changed to Los Angeles to get more LA fans. But the stadium deal required them to keep the name “Anaheim” until the lease was up (it is next year). So now they’re “The Los Angeles Angels Of Anaheim.”

    AKA, The The Angels Angels Of Anaheim.

    This would be permissible in a region that had few Spanish speakers. Not SoCal!

    Although I’d be happy if the DC football team renamed themselves the “Washington Washingtons.”

    • That’s great! And yes, for the Spanglish speakers, that would stand out. “The Los” sounds just fine to my ear. But now it will likely start to bug me.

  4. And us computer people always point out that WNT is one up from VMS, the operating system that inspired Windows NT (via Dave Cutler who worked on VMS and then headed up the development of NT)!

    Your description of “AIDS syndrome” seems a lot like “word aversion”, about which a number of posts can be found at the Language Log (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/index.php?s=aversion brings up a list of the posts). Word aversion is not related to grammar or usage; it refers to a visceral reaction to a word. For example, one commenter mentioned some words that brought to her mind unpleasant textures. Other words bring up distressing associations. Surpisingly, different surveys report “moist” as the most “popular” word to which people have an aversion. In one of the posts, the writer did a semi-scientific, off-the-cuff scan of Project Gutenberg texts from selected authors to see if there’s any difference between the authors in the frequency of use of “moist”. (“Literary moist aversion“)

    • That’s very interesting. And that’s definitely the case with me. It isn’t rational. Of course, what is?

      My memory is that the NT project was the first time that MS bothered to go out and hire really good people. Until then, it was an amateurish company. That’s not to say that they didn’t have good coders and such. But in terms of project management, they were largely lost. NT was a leap forward.

      • In case readers don’t get it, when I said WNT is one up from VMS, it means that each letter is one up: V=>W, M=>N, S=>T. Which was an interesting coincidence given Cutler’s background in VMS.

        • I certainly didn’t get that. Thanks for pointing it out. It’s very interesting. I assume that is a coincidence like HAL and IBM?

          VMS was a good operating system. Although by my time, even more VAX hardware was running Unix.

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