FAIL stands for Frightfully bad Acronyms Invading astronomy Literature.

Because astronomers just love acronyms. Scientists do generally, but astronomers seem particularly fond of them for some reason. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is permitted to exist in astronomy with a real name. Instead the following rules need to be used in order to construct a ridiculous sounding acronym:

  1. Take a fairly arbitrary collection of words which describe whatever it is you’re trying to name – be it an instrument, a piece of software, or a multi-million euro space telescope.
  2. Assemble words into an acronym – this may be something which actually describes what this thing does. Or it may be something completely random and unrelated. Or it may be a made up word. Or it may only be a “word” under very loose definitions.
  3. Bonus points for getting to use the letter X somehow, extra words awkwardly jammed in to make the acronym make more sense, using letters other than the first letter of your words, or making your acronym an uncomfortable mis-spelling of a real word.

So purely for lulz, here’s a collection of my favourite acronyms encountered so far in all of astronomy. And by favourite, I really mean the silliest ones. Not all acronyms are bad. There are some brilliant ones. But you won’t find any of those on this page. Welcome to acronym hell.

(I should add that in all of these cases, or at least those I’m familiar with, the science is brilliant. It’s just the names which could do with a little work.)

I’m astounded. It’s an acronym made entirely of initialisms! Which, in full, would stand for – 2-degree field Sloan digital sky survey Luminous red galaxy And Quasi-stellar object. Remarkable!
(Thanks, @j_t_allen!)

(Amsterdam-ASTRON Radio Transients Facility And Analysis Centre)
Imagine, for a moment, how they must answer the phone. “Hello, AARTFAAC!”

(AN archive of CHandra Observations of Regions of Star formation)
OMG! Why did they even bother making an acronym? Why?

(COnservative COde for the COmputation of COmpressible COnvection in a BOx of L Dimensions with l=2,3)
Gosh, what a mouthful. I suppose technically, the acronym should be (CO)5BOLD…
(Thanks  @pauledmon)

(Co-Ordinated Radio ‘N’ Infrared Survey for High-mass star formation)
Seriously, just wow.  They do at least get bonus points for using the Cornish flag on their website. But other than that, there seems to be no connection whatsoever to Cornwall…
(Via @astropixie)

(Fabry-perot of New Technology for the Observatoire du mont Megantic)
This one is really quite special. Really.

(the Florida Analysis Tool Born Of Yearning for high-quality scientific data)
I really really do hope that this one was intended to be a joke. Because if it wasn’t… Seriously, there are all kinds of things wrong with this acronym.

(Full and Efficient Redshifting of Ensembles of Nearby Galaxy Images)
Yes, Ferengi. The little guys from Star Trek with the big ears. It’s a piece of software for artificially simulating a redshift effect. Presumably, you can view the data in DS9

(Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope)
I’ve actually used this one. And amid all of the rush for the proposal and the fun playing with data, there was one thing I really never noticed – the acronym is terrible! Plus, SOFIA already stands for Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, so it’s an acronym within an acronym. Wow, that’s meta.

(Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey)
The main reason this is here is because I’ve heard the phrase GOODS-NICMOS Survey (which would also appear to be a tautology) so many times. Really, SO MANY TIMES. I can’t even hear the word “goods” used in any context anymore without thinking of the GOODS-NICMOS survey!

(Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope)
Thankfully, on realising that groundbreaking scientific discoveries might be made by an instrument with a ridiculous name, GLAST was renamed to Fermi. You see? Aren’t actual names better?

(the Joint Efficient Dark-energy Investigation)
“It doesn’t even make sense!” – @allinthegutter

(the Local Volume HI Survey)
This is apparently pronounced “Elvis”. And is often accompanied by pictures of Elvis. Check out the website for amusing photos of astronomers dressed up as The King!
(Thanks Kate!)

(Method for Including Starspots and Systematics in the Marginalized Probability of a Lone Eclipse)
I… There’s… Just… I have no words. Only facepalms.

(Mid-InfraRed Large-well Imager)
It’s actually a really good instrument which has been used in some really cool science. I’d even call it an acceptable mis-spelling of “Merlin”. Why’s it here? Well, you might have noticed that the N has been stuck on for good measure and doesn’t actually stand for anything…

(Massive Unseen Companions to Hot Faint Underluminous Stars from SDSS)
You see, this is another one where they probably shouldn’t have bothered. The science sounds really interesting, but somehow I just can’t take it seriously with a name like that. It’s also another acronym-in-an-acronym. Things are getting increasingly meta!

(Spectrograph for INtegral Field Observations in the Near Infrared)
I guess this one isn’t that bad. It’s just not that good either.

(The H I Nearby Galaxy Survey)
“So what’s your thesis all about?”
“Oh, you know… I’ve been looking at THINGS.”
(Thanks @mandaYoho)

(Widefield ASKAP L-band Legacy All-sky Blind surveY)
I actually like animal names, but– using the Y from survey? That should be cheating! Plus, ASKAP (Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder) is a pretty wacky acronym in itself…
(Thanks @AstroKatie)

(sWift Objects for MHD BAsed on TVD)
This one qualifies to be here purely for making a W stand for Swift! Plus more of those initialisms in there, too…
(Thanks  @pauledmon!)

If you still want more, there’s a much more comprehensive list to be found, called DOOFAAS (Dumb Or Overly Forced Astronomical Acronyms Site). If you’ve found something particularly ridiculous which you’d like to share, please do leave it here in a comment. If it’s silly enough, I’ll add it to the list!

Also – and acronym assemblers, please do take note – there is a difference between an acronym and an initialism. An acronym is intended to be a pronounceable word. In fact, the most successful acronyms are an accepted part of the English language by now; not everyone knows that laser actually stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, even though almost everyone knows what a laser actually is. On the other hand, initialisms are not always pronounceable. Try pronouncing any of these out loud as actual words: 2dFGRS, SDSS, XRF, BBC, JWST. If your attempts sounded anything like mine, your cat probably thinks you’re having a seizure by now.

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2 Responses to FAIL

  1. My favourite, for being an acronym of initialisms, is the 2SLAQ survey: 2dF SDSS LRG and QSO, or in full: 2-degree field Sloan digital sky survey luminous red galaxy and quasi-stellar object.

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