If We Use Letters in Math, I Guess It’s Only Fair to Write with Numbers

In a webinar on internationalization, I was following along and minding my own business while the moderator changed slides. I was suddenly faced with something I’d never seen before: I18n. Pronounced “internationalization.”


Image via railscasts.com

I spent a moment figuring out the logic there, and then thought, “Wait, this is a thing? How long has this been a thing?”

It turns out that this is a type of numeronym that is indeed a thing, and has been since before 1985. As a high-functioning nerd for the majority of my life and someone involved in technical fields for years, I have no idea how I didn’t notice these.

After looking further into the convention, I feel a little better.  According to Mike Pope, who wrote an article called “It’s a Number! It’s a Word! It’s Both!” In 2012, it was rare enough that the word numeronym hadn’t made it into the dictionary (which a brief search tells me is still true, at least for Dictionary.com).

Wikipedia indicates that this is only one kind of numeronym. Others include: examples in which the number is pronounced, like K9 (canine); abbreviations where the number indicates repetition of the preceding letter, like W3C (World Wide Web Consortium); and numbers that entirely replace a word, like 411 (information). Leet-Speak (H4CK3D for HACKED, thought that’s possibly not the most extreme example) is also listed in the article, as is an earlier definition involving telephone numbers that spell out words (an old accident lawyer commercial from my home region comes to mind: 1-800-CALL-LEE).

The Wikipedia article also includes a fun origin story for the type of numeronym I encountered in that webinar.

According to Tex Texin, the first numeronym of this kind was “S12n”, the electronic mail account name given to Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) employee Jan Scherpenhuizen by a system administrator because his surname was too long to be an account name. By 1985, colleagues who found Jan’s name unpronounceable often referred to him verbally as “S12n” (ess-twelve-en).

This convention seems mostly confined to technology, and I definitely see the convenience of it. I do at times get tired of writing out localization, stabilization, globalization, and a dozen other technical terms. The downside, though, is that the numeronym isn’t particularly indicative of the actual word. For example, is d8n domination, denotation, or demolition?  But I would assume that this kind of question wouldn’t come up too often, and it’s not terribly difficult to recognize the meaning of a numeronym once you know what it means.

And yet I’m pretty sure I dislike this convention. It shortens frustratingly long words and it was a pleasant diversion for an afternoon, but it still bothers me. I can’t decide if it’s because it’s not phonetic, or if it’s just because I tend to react negatively to business jargon. I think I’ll maintain my interest from a distance on this one.

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