Capitalising is not smart

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Smart has long been a staple of school vocabulary. Through the ages, all schools have wanted their pupils to look smart and to be smart, and it hasn't always been clear which was the most important. In certain times and places, wearing a scuffed wing collar was as grave an offence as mis-parsing a sentence from Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico, and punishable by enthusiastic flogging.

Now the word has been subjected to punishment: it has been acronymised (a word of my own coinage - and let no one use acronymed, please. The stress falls on the second syllable. Americans may spell it with a z.) The trouble with trying to create acronyms out of real words is that it seldom works, and the results sound contrived. Smart, or as it may be, SMART, has given in to the treatment reluctantly and has in consequence suffered more than most. It has been rendered not just a single acronym, but a variable one.

For our purposes the Department for Education and Skills gives it as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related. In this form it is applied to a target. (Target has been earmarked for acronymisation.

Proposals are being drawn up and TARGET is to be phased in by 2007.) SMART is rendered in a number of other ways. There is consensus on the first three words, but the fourth is the subject of schism. Some see "realistic" as being perilously close in meaning to "achievable", and have opted instead for "reasonable" or "relevant". All three variants have the advantage of providing the lazy with a get-out. After all, one person's "reasonable" is another's "you must be joking". And don't get me started on "relevant".

The final letter is variously given as time-related-based-bound or -sensitive, as well as timely and timed. The small differences here demonstrate the wondrous subtleties of the English language. They also show how ridiculous the exercise is in the first place.

If more proof is needed, imagine the use of SMART in practice. For there is a basic flaw in all such acronyms: in speech, no one can hear you capitalise. Think what might happen if a headteacher told the staff to aim at smart targets. At the very least, the school would plummet down the league tables. Open Day would take on a whole new meaning.

Let's face it: SMART is the new silly.

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