Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Into the Weeds with Abbreviations

There is a nuanced twist to navigation terminology that is ever more likely to be confronted... if you might care to ponder such things. It relates to a hierarchy in the specificity of abbreviations. 

mb, Pub., WA are abbreviations. We write them as letters and then read them or pronounce them as the words they stand for, "millibars," "Publication," "Washington."  We can think of these as abbreviations, level 1.

GPS, ENC, COG are initialisms.  They are abbreviations we read and pronounce letter by letter, without saying, or maybe even knowing, what they stand for. We might call these abbreviations, level 2.

And then there is RADAR, ECDIS (pronounced "ekdis"), ATON (pronounced "ay-tahn"), which are acronymsThese are abbreviations that have been elevated to actual words that we pronounce as they are spelled.  Level 3!

Beyond this tidy arrangement, there is at least one loose cannon floating around the nav station.

NMEA, representing the National Marine Electronics Association, is often used as an acronym, which for some unknown reason is commonly pronounced "neema," which has nothing to do with what was once an unambiguous acronym (NIMA) for National Imagery and Mapping Agency  (1996 to 2003) that had replaced the Defense Mapping Agency, known by the initialism DMA.  NIMA was replaced with the NGA, the initialism for National Geospatial Agency, which serves an expanded function today, including the production of many useful nav pubs.

Years ago we proposed the name "erble" be used to elevate the abbreviation for electronic range and bearing line (ERBL) to an acronym. This does make reference to it more tidy,  but I am not sure if this ever caught on much. The longer the abbreviation, the more attractive an acronym becomes.

We got into this abbreviation minutiae today as we prepare our new online course on echart navigation, which focuses on ENC, electronic navigational charts. These are the vector charts that will replace all traditional paper charts and RNC (raster navigational charts) by the end of 2024, which is not that far away — it is now Nov 10, 2020, and many folks are at this moment well aware of  how long 4 years is!

Everything displayed on an ENC is an object, and every object is described by several attributes. Every object on the chart has a 6-letter abbreviation: landmark is LNDMRK, lateral buoy is BOYLAT. We learn what these attributes are when reading an ENC by clicking the object, called a cursor pick, which brings up a list of the objects at that point (usually several) as well as their attributes.

The attributes are also each given a 6-letter abbreviation. Thus, object BOYLAT has attribute BOYSHP (buoy shape), which has 8 possible values; attribute CATLAM (category of the lateral mark), which has 4 possible values; plus attributes for color, color pattern; etc.  There are 27 possible attributes of an object BOYLAT, which you can see defined at this online
ENC Object Catalog from Caris.

One of the first things we might note on that wonderful Caris reference, is they call the abbreviations "acronyms." For the most part, this is not right. We might get by with BOYLAT or CATLAM, but what about the crucial object used to describe rocks: UWTROC (underwater/awash rock). The vast majority of the abbreviations for objects and attributes are awkward at best to pronounce. Caris cannot be blamed for their use of the term. The International Hydrographic Organization  standard for ENCs (IHO S-57)  calls them "acronyms."

The point at hand here is that some abbreviations for objects and attributes will nevertheless inevitably become acronyms right out of the box, such as the attribute that nearly all objects have called SCAMIN (scale minimum,  maybe pronounced "ska min"). You must be zoomed into a scale equal to the SCAMIN or larger in order to see the object on an ENC. Recall that chart scales are defined as ratios: 1:40,000 (1/40,000) is a larger scale (fraction) than 1:80,000 (1/80,000). A lateral beacon (BCNLAT) with a SCAMIN of 44,999 will show up on a 1:40,000 display, but will disappear off the chart when you zoom out  to 1:80,000.

But I wander into the charting here, when the topic is abbreviations. The point is this: as we learn more of the 500 ENC objects and the 400 ENC attributes that can be used to describe them, we will first confront the fact that they look the same, each abbreviated with 6 capital letters, then we will most likely bump around a bit as we decide which of these should be honored with acronyms, and if we want an acronym for an abbreviation we can't pronounce, what word do we invent for it—in the spirit of NMEA.  

If we have friends working in the government, we can ask them for help. They are experts at this... think of NOAA (noah), but that is just an ice crystal on the tip of the iceberg of government speak.

For completeness, I might note that the IHO has a standard for what must be in an ENC called IHO S-57 and another standard on how this information should be presented to the mariners, which is called IHO S-52. In the latter they discourage the use of the abbreviations for objects and attributes in lieu of  full names that they refer to as "human readable language." 

Consequently, many echart programs do not use the abbreviations at all, however, my own work with ENC has shown a certain value to having these available. OpenCPN, for example, uses both the abbreviations and the full names for the objects, but only abbreviations for the attributes. Other programs do not use abbreviations at all.

1 comment:

Larry Brandt said...

It's long bugged me that NMEA has been pronounced "nee-ma." I refuse to go there, and have stood by my three syllable "na-mee-yah."