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The Stellar Soul of Wit.

WHERE WOULD WE BE in astronomy without acronyms? Say you run into someone working on a certain study of galaxy formation. You don't want to have to ask, "Hey, what's the latest with Galaxy Halos, Outer disks, Substructure, Thick disks, and Star clusters?" You'd much rather just ask, "Hey, what's the latest with GHOSTS?"

Acronym comes from the Greek akron (end, tip) and onuma (name). The idea, at least initially, was to take the first letter of each word in a series and make a new "word," as in NASA or SETI. But astronomers found using just the initial letter far too limiting. (And it would really wreck GHOSTS.) Consider OSIRISREx. That's short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, and Regolith Explorer. Such flexibility! Free rein, of course, can lead to bolting horses. For examples, amuse yourself on the Dumb Or Overly Forced Astronomical Acronyms Site, or DOOFAAS (see

All astronomical acronyms are helpful, though. Imagine how worn out we'd have been in recent months if we'd had to verbalize "Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory" every time we mentioned that top newsmaker. Happily, we could just say "LIGO." It was even easier because we pronounce it "LIE-go" instead of spelling it out every time, as in "L-I-G-O." We do use initialism for certain terms, for good reason. Try enunciating RGB (red giant branch) or AGN (active galactic nucleus) as if they were words.

Acronyms offer endless opportunities for cleverness. How diverting, for instance, if you wind up with one bearing a catchy cultural innuendo, as in SHERLOC or PEPSSI. (I'll let you google these.) Even better, craft one to be finessable later if the project expands or proceeds in a different form, as in CREAM and ISS-CREAM. (Gosh, I wonder how you pronounce that?)

While reading a draft of our feature on TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, page 22), it occurred to me that far and away the most popular variety of astro acronym is feminine names. Think LORRI, ALMA, SOFIA, AMBER, LISA, AMANDA--the list goes on. (The guys get FRED.)

Some acronyms can make you chortle, such as WIMP or KREEP. Others might leave you scratching your head. ASAS-SN? GERLUMPH? ARMPIT? One project focusing on star systems elbowed us all gently in the side when it settled on ACRONYM (All-sky Co-moving Recovery Of Nearby Young Members).

Whether all-business, playful, or groan-inducing, astro acronyms allow us to cut to the chase with what are often unimaginably complicated experiments, instruments, or missions. They're also a sign of how wonderfully active and varied astronomy is today. Most notably, though, they're a relief. Why stumble over "ZonEd Proportional scintillation in Liquid Noble gases"?

Just say "ZEPLIN"!


Editor in Chief

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Title Annotation:SPECTRUM
Author:Tyson, Peter
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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