Saturday, February 18, 2017

Capital Idea

I have a real problem with the North American Free Trade Agreement. That’s the three-country accord that created a unified trading block on these shores, linking Mexico, the United States and Canada. It was negotiated back in the 1990’s under President George H. W. Bush, then ratified by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton at the end of 1993.

Covering major aspects of goods, agriculture, intellectual property and transportation, the goal was to create an open and efficient market involving the three countries. Opinion on it ranges widely, from "A first rate trade agreement" (Carla Hills, US Trade Representative 1989-1993) to "The worst trade deal in history" (President Donald Trump). Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

But my issue with it has nothing to do with how well it has protected jobs, or reduced prices or mitigated common environmental issues. Rather, I don’t know what to call it, or more specifically, how to write about it. Of course, we’re way too busy to use "North American Free Trade Agreement" every time we want to talk about it. And so like many things, we abbreviate it, using the first letter of each of the key words. But I ask you: are we talking about NAFTA? Or Nafta?

Like the agreement itself, it depends whom you ask. The New York Times’ practice is to print acronyms of proper names entirely in capitals if they have four letters or fewer. That gives you NATO (North American Treaty Organization), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and PIN (Personal Identification Number). More than four, and only the first letter is capitalized. And so you wind up with Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Nascar (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) and Nasdaq (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations System).  

But the Times is hardly the final word on this. Other major publications, including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor all prefer to go all-caps all the time. This leads us to the US Navy’s keyboard-breaker for the Administrative Command, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet Subordinate Command, better known as ADCOMSUBORDCOMPHIBSPAC. Oh, to be back in the USSR.

Actually, you might think that will all the airtime it’s been getting of late, both NAFTA and Nafta would be incorrect in favor of going all lower case, or "nafta." After all, there is ample precedent for acronyms to become diminutive with increased usage. Those tanks you wear when you go diving? We call it scuba, though it really stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. That light that comes out of your optical mouse? It’s a laser, though that too is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Even the stuff your mom sent you at summer camp is in the mix. The candy, soap and toothpaste that made up your care package was originally aid sent out in the aftermath of World War II, and was more properly known as the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe.

In the same way, some proper names have lost their capitalization as they’ve gotten more usage. Think of Xerox becoming xerox, meaning "to copy" or more recently, Google becoming google, as in "to search." Can you velcro things together without Velcro? Or create some fake news by photoshopping an image without Photoshop? And who knows where we go when the trendy name starts with a lower case letter. Consider what might happen when smartphones get so ubiquitous that they are made by 500 different companies as opposed to the current 5 or 10 major players. Does the generic description become IPHONE so as not to infringe upon on Apple’s lower case "i" trademark?

So NAFTA? Or Nafta? Or nafta? Hard to tell, and harder to muster the opposition or support if you can’t agree on what to all it.  It recalls Mel Brooks and Carl Renier’s classic "The 2000 Year Old Man." In the routine, interviewer Reiner chats with ancient curmudgeon Brooks about his experiences over two millennia. Among other things, Brooks points out that World War II went on longer than it should have because we all listened to Churchill. "He kept calling them 'Narzees.' Meanwhile, the rest of the world is out looking for the 'Natzees.' The war could have been over sooner if we were all looking for the same group of guys."


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to write right. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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