NRA, NATO, WWF: A Brief History of Abbreviations That Are Already Taken

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 3 2011 3:20 PM

NRA, NATO, WWF: A Brief History of Abbreviations That Are Already Taken

NRAlogos

This week, Herman Cain has continued to defend himself against claims that he sexually harassed female employees while he served as head of the National Restaurant Association. The brewing scandal has brought unusual levels of scrutiny to the restaurant interest group, which insiders often abbreviate as the “NRA.”  The media, too, have glommed on to this shorthand; Fox News, for instance, refers to the association as the NRA several times in this story. It wouldn’t be surprising if some casual news consumers came to think, incorrectly, that Cain not only ran Godfather’s Pizza, but may have advocated for gun rights, too.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

The restaurant-world NRA, founded in 1919, and the gun-rights group NRA, established in 1871, both seem to appeal primarily to conservative-minded politicians—and voters. For one thing, the restaurant group has fought against the Obama health care plan. Perhaps the confusion between the restaurant NRA and the firearms NRA won’t hurt Cain, or the restaurant group.

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But the National Restaurant Association isn’t the only trade group to suffer (or, perhaps, benefit) from a more familiar abbreviation or acronym. In this week’s New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes about a controversial scheme that would have provided video-on-demand rentals of the upcoming film Tower Heist:

The stakes were raised considerably by reports that NATO was incensed by this latest move in the battle of VOD. For one heady morning, I was under the impression that air strikes would be launched on Universal. Only then was it explained to me that NATO stands for the National Association of Theatre Owners, who regard the Tower Heist experiment, and similar ventures, as the thin end of a deadening wedge. 

I first encountered the hilariously abbreviated National Association of Theatre Owners in the late ’90s, when I was a teenage movie-theater employee. Whenever we had to watch training videos mandated by NATO, I would joke about suffering air strikes if we did not properly clean each theater. My fellow popcorn-scoopers didn’t find it terribly funny. The cinematic NATO was founded in 1965, 16 years after the establishment of the better-known North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Such abbreviation overlap abounds in the wide world of sports. College football fans, for instance, may find news about the SEC a little confusing: Why’s the Southeastern Conference involved with an investigation into MF Global? Even if you know that the abbreviation also refers to the Securities & Exchange Commission, it can sometimes take a second to reorient yourself to the proper context. Basketball fans who enjoy good literature experience many such moments at this time of year: The NBA finalists (that is, people on the shortlist for a National Book Award) were just announced. And who can forget the smackdown between the World Wrestling Federation and the World Wildlife Fund? The wildlife group sued to prohibit the pro wrestling league from using “its” abbreviation—and won: A decade ago, Vince McMahon’s organization acquiesced and changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment.

As the WWE/WWF wrestling match demonstrates, these abbreviation confusions don’t always endure. Public Radio International’s honchos must have been relieved when the Pineapple Research Institute, to which we owe many of today’s pineapple varieties, disbanded in 1986.