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12 August 2004 @ 19:38
Why is it always the ROM, and only sometimes the CIA?  

It all began with an e-mail from my sister, who had a usage question about the acronym for the Royal Ontario Museum. Specifically, she wanted to know:

Would one say:

"We went on a fieldtrip to the ROM"


"We went on a fieldtrip to ROM"?

The answer, as any red-blooded, smog-breathing Hogtownite will readily confirm, is "the ROM," with the definite article. (If you haven't got a red-blooded, smog-breathing Hogtownite handy, you can confirm it yourself by visiting the ROM's web site.) The real question is, why is it "the ROM"?

Y'see, "the ROM" appears to contradict an otherwise rather robust generalization made by Heidi Harley in a 2003 paper called "Why is it the CIA but not *the NASA? Acronyms, abbreviations and definite descriptions."

Harley describes the paper as follows:

A somewhat silly little paper reporting on an observation about a difference between initialisms and acronyms in English syntax: when they're derived from definite descriptions, acronyms become proper names, but initialisms don't (it's 'NASA', not 'the NASA', and it's 'the F-B-I', not 'F-B-I'). I'm most pleased with the observation that a large class of exceptions to this rule (university and television station initialisms, which don't retain the determiner) fall under the more general rules about when you can have a bare N in English: "I'm going to school"; "I'm watching television". LOTS of data.

So acronyms don't need determiners, but initialisms do, unless they're for things like schools (e.g., MIT, OSU, UNC), television stations (CTV, CNN, CBS, NBC, but cf. the CBC, the BBC), hospitals (TGH), and so on. (This applies only to abbreviations for definite descriptions; abbreviated personal names, for example, like FDR or JFK or PET, act like names.) In general, there seem to be quite a number of initialisms that can go naked, but very few acronyms that require a determiner. What's so special about the ROM? (Are museums different? The other ones I can think of go by initialisms, or by unabbreviated names—the AGO, the MFA, the Louvre, and so on. Not systematically: MOMA goes without an article.)

And then, thanks to Michael Moore, I heard Porter Goss say, "I couldn't get a job with CIA today." In an interview (about having cut which from Farenheit 9/11 Moore is currently beating his head against a sturdy brick wall), George Bush's chosen replacement for George Tenet explains that his qualifications are not what the Central Intelligence Agency is currently looking for in a case officer. (For one thing, he does Romance languages, when what the Agency really wants now are Arabists. And apparently he's not very computer-literate.) Naturally, I was tickled pink(o) by this in my capacity as a leftist and an ironist, but qua linguist I was fascinated by what was left unsaid, viz. the.

In the video excerpt on Moore's web page, Goss does indeed seem to omit the article, although it's hard to tell for sure that he's saying "with CIA" rather than, say, "with th' CIA." [On closer inspection, he actually seems to be saying something more like [wəsˑijaje]. But what I'm interested in just now is the syntax, not the phonetics.] The transcript Moore provides covers a bit more context than the video excerpt, and includes another instance of CIA with no the:

REP. GOSS: It is true I was in CIA from approximately the late 50's to approximately the early 70's. And it's true I was a case officer, clandestine services office and yes I do understand the core mission of the business. I couldn't get a job with CIA today. I am not qualified.

Goss's references to "CIA" don't do much damage to Harley's analysis (although they may be fatal to her paper's title); it seems to be relatively easy to start treating an initialism as a proper name, and to drop the article accordingly. "The ROM," however, is more puzzling—why should a perfectly good acronym refuse to act like a proper name? (On the other hand, the fact that non-Torontonians don't seem to have robust intuitions about "the ROM" may make it easier to brush aside as a local exception.) I guess it's heartening, in a way, to discover that there is more mystery to be found in one's local museum than in a superpower's spy agency.

parodieparodie on 12. August, 2004 21:48 (UTC)
As a non-torontonian (but an ex-ontarian) I must say I have strong intuitions about "the ROM", namely *******!!!"ROM". (i.e. very, very bad)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 13. August, 2004 09:56 (UTC)

Mm. Maybe I should have been more specific: residents of the particular non-Toronto that my sister lives in don't seem to have strong intuitions about *(the) ROM.