Three important letters

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day.  Next month we'll celebrate our presidents.  I live in a country that has many important government agencies that delight in forming acronyms.  The common thread underpinning all of these: three important letters.

MLK, FDR, JFK, CIA, FBI, NSA, CEO, USA...What is it with the three little letters?  I find myself doing it with everyone and everything.  In college a professor took to calling biblical theologian Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza ESF, and I sign my emails ERB.  Dan now works for the NGA, or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which named itself so that it would be among the prestigious three letter agencies, breaking rules of English grammar by adding a hypen so that heaven forbid, it would not be NGIA.  On a conscious or subconscious level, we know that abbreviations of the three letter variety connote importance and prominence.

I will listen and agree to the rationale: Full names (first, middle, and last) are more distinctive than first names, or last names, or first and last name combinations yet still memorable.  As the complexity of our naming has expanded, and as our bureaucracies and organizations have increased, so have our abbreviations.  Shortening takes up less space.  And so on and so forth.

For the three letter combination really to stick, though, one must leave a legacy. Otherwise the three letters are forever relegated to monogrammed towels, email signatures, and tiny websites.  I suppose the reason that the designation of the NGA as such fascinates me so is that the creators deliberately shaped its identity.  The CIA and FBI came along too early to appreciate what they were doing (indeed, they gave rise to the prestige of three letter acronyms), and I doubt that MLK and JFK spent their initial years in public service branding themselves as three letter figures. 

All this leads me to a larger question, one that cuts far deeper than initials and acronyms: To what extent can we shape public perception and to what extent is it imposed upon us? 

Emily Rowell Brown