People use the term “alphabet soup” to describe a speech, document, or other communication which is so cluttered with acronyms that it is hard to understand. Alphabet soup is an especially widespread problem in military-related communications, since the military is extraordinarily fond of using acronyms and alphabetisms. For someone who is not familiar with the topic under discussion, alphabet soup can look like complete gibberish.
This slang term references the food product of the same name. In the sense of food, alphabet soup is a soup which includes noodles shaped like letters of the alphabet. A bowl of alphabet soup includes a wide assortment of letters jumbled together, and sometimes the letters happen to connect and form words. Viewed at a glance, a written document can sometimes resemble a bowl of alphabet soup, with acronyms scattered every which way and no clear definition for the terms used in the document.
Several types of shorthand can appear in alphabet soup. Acronyms are words made by stringing together the first letters or initial sounds of a group of words, as in “Gestapo” for “Geheime Staatspolizei” or “laser” for “light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation.” It is also possible to see initialisms, also known as alphabetisms, special types of acronyms which are not designed to be read as words, but rather as individual letters, like “EU” for “European Union.” Alphabet soup can also include industry or reader-specific slang terms and shorthand, which can add further confusion to the situation.
In private communications, alphabet soup may be perfectly acceptable. It is usually safe to assume, for example, that a memorandum from one member of the military for another can include military jargon because both parties will understand what is being said. In fact, the use of jargon can even preserve the privacy of such a communication, by making it hard for people outside the inner circle to understand what is being said.
Public communications, however, should not be turned into alphabet soup. Even when acronyms and initialisms are clearly spelled out so that people understand what is being referenced, a sea of them can be very intimidating, and readers or listeners may start to tune out, rather than focusing on the material. Clarity and ease of understanding are critical when preparing printed materials or speeches for public distribution, especially when discussing serious issues. For example, instead of saying “the CIA, FBI, NSA, and DSS are working together on this project,” it might be easier to stick with “American intelligence agencies are cooperating on the project.”