Walking through the offices of Clure Concept Inc., twenty stories above the throbbing midtown traffic of a Tuesday afternoon, the scene is typical. Phones purr behind cubicle walls, young execs file out of transparent conference rooms. These hurried sharp-lookers could be selling insurance or optical fibers, analyzing market data or brokering mergers. Instead, the good people at Clure Concept Inc. are selling acronyms—catchy words derived from the initial letters of each word in a phrase. In fact, Clure Concept Inc. is the leading developer of acronyms in the world, representing clients on six continents and in almost every conceivable industry. Clure Concept Inc. employs acronymers, as they are called, fluent in over thirty languages; many have career backgrounds in advertising and marketing, some in engineering. One was the former crossword puzzle editor of a major Midwestern newspaper, another a marine biologist. At the head of this highly motivated, dedicated bunch is Clure Concept Inc.’s CEO and founder, James Clure. Employees consider Clure to be more than a boss. He’s their acronym guru, team captain, fearless leader, or, as they’ve coined him, their “Concept Commander”.
When I finally meet this James Clure, he certainly looks the part: tall, athletic, unseasonably tan skin with yachtsman’s wrinkles about the eyes, longish hair and smartly dressed on the casual side of formal. Clure’s presence projects a stern but mellow brand of confidence. It is not difficult to understand how this man was capable, within the last thirty years, of almost single-handedly creating an industry that is now one of the American service sector’s most lucrative.
They say the world’s first acronym was born, as most inventions are, out of a fortunate accident. In Barrow’s Bluff, Kansas, in 1897, Charles Hauser was delivering a difficult trigonometry lesson to his bored and frustrated students in the town’s dilapidated one-room schoolhouse. Elbow-deep in chalkdust after an hour of fruitless lecturing, Hauser, dejected, leaned his weary head against the chalkboard, trying to recover his strength. Behind him, out of the silence, he heard what sounded like some sort of Polynesian chant. At first, Hauser thought he had lost his mind. But as the chant continued, Hauser recognized the voice of that improbable shaman: Josiah Trowell, the deaf “class dunce” (who recent acronym historians now believe may have suffered from a form of autism). Josiah was chanting the first letters of some words Hauser had written as part of his trigonometric proofs. The entire class soon took up the chant and with the help of this memory aid, the class performed surprisingly well on that week’s examination. Hauser published an account of the incident in the American Pedagogic Review, and soon his “phoneto-acronymic” method was employed in schools across the country. You yourself may be familiar with young Josiah’s chant: SOH CAH TOA.
Sitting in his long window-walled office, with its commanding view of the city’s skyline, Clure tells me that his meteoric rise in the acronym world began with equal serendipity: “I like to say that my first partner in business was Uncle Sam. He happened to give me my first acronym: AWOL.”
Clure’s military record is classified—beyond a sporting smirk he’s not permitted to say much—but the story (filled in largely by friends of Clure who wished to remain anonymous) goes vaguely like this: Clure worked for Army Intelligence in Central America during the Cold War, probably running “psy-ops” in rural villages, trying to win the hearts of peasants away from Communists and into the hands of the CIA’s ultra-right puppet governments. For reasons unknown, Clure was temporarily listed as AWOL, and then discharged from the Army with no explanation other than, “due to the contraction of a chronic and possibly life-threatening respiratory condition”—a condition which has yet to manifest itself in Clure, who just last year placed high in the Boston Marathon.
After the army, Clure went to work for a Madison Avenue advertising firm, Wainscott Hersh. His first account was with a radio station in Monterey, California that had come under new ownership and was looking to convey its new Top 40 format. Clure suggested that the station change its call sign to KBAM, for Bay Area-Monterey, and call itself “The Bam!” in order to target its young, pop-oriented demographic. Clure’s acronym-based campaign was a huge success. KBAM shot up from the number five to the number one station in the region. Word spread, and soon Clure was juggling more acronym-based campaigns than he could handle.
“I decided that enough was enough,” he tells me. “I wasn’t getting enough support from the people I was working for, and meanwhile I was half their business. I thought, ‘Hey. I don’t need this. I can be my own boss.’ And that was that.”
James Clure founded Clure Concept Inc. in 1975, carrying over the bulk of his Wainscott Hersh clients. In order to manage the explosive demand for his services, Clure began to hire, on a selective basis, other advertising pros who wanted to get in on Clure’s acronym gold rush. His hiring program provided Clure with a committed cadre of underlings that helped Clure to produce masterly results. Clure’s best works during this time were SALT I & II- acronyms that helped ease Cold War nuclear tensions. Riding on the success of SALT, Clure received a contract from the National Institute of Health to create an acronym for a new, mysterious, and deadly virus. The result lifted Clure from acronym notable to acronym superstar: AIDS.
Clure holds that his success in the acronym world is attributable to his excellent understanding of what an acronym is, what it ought to do:
“The greatest acronym of all time has got to be scuba, followed by laser. I mean, we don’t even capitalize those. You make up a phrase to describe something, and you word it just write so that the first letter of each word, put together, makes another word. And with scuba, or laser, it’s totally a completely new word. Those words are used offhand, comfortably, to describe things that are very complicated. People don’t even know how much they’re saying with those two syllables. Now, NATO is also a brilliant acronym- it stands for one thing, but the word that results is like the Latin nato- it suggests something being born, like, the birth of a new world order, which is kind of what NATO was.”
I ask him to continue:
“Now, there’re some acronyms out there that are kind of on the border. Those guys over at the UN are always making these mediocre acronyms. UNSCOM? Come on. What is that- some sort of program to airlift scum to the needy? I don’t get it. UNICEF? Let’s say the jury’s still out on that one. Now, everyone in the acronym biz knows about the fallen angel of acronyms—Epcot, which used to be EPCOT. Disney created EPCOT to stand for “Experimental Community of Tomorrow”. Go down to Orlando today, and you’ll see what it’s become—Epcot is a kind of run-down hodge-podge of corporate-sponsored rides that sometimes deal vaguely with “the future.” And then there’s that whole countries thing. I mean, Epcot is faded-glory city. And from an acronymer’s point of view, this is also a disaster because, first of all, they just call it “Epcot” like that’s some regular word that means something, and they don’t even mention the original spirit of the acronym. No one knows about it anymore. But on the other hand, acronymers are fascinated by this because what was once an acronym has degenerated into its own, very powerful albeit bizarre, independent word. A word that refers to something different from its acronymic object. And of course there’s the shit acronyms, like VREM and CLAT. Walk into a meeting and drop one of those suckers and it’s over. People get uncomfortable, you look like an idiot. When you use an acronym, the efficiency, agency, and force of what I call the acronym’s ‘concept compression’ are projected onto you. That’s the point.”
Clure tells me his most recent work is with what he calls “cognate acronyms”. That is, acronyms that relate in some way with the phrase they stand for. Clure developed an acronym for the Israeli government’s new desalination technology- PUMP, which stands for Pressurized Underwater Membranous Pipeline. His latest acronym for the particle physicists over at CERN is BOLT: Baryonic Oscillating Light Telemeter. Though well-received acronyms such as these are keeping Clure Concept Inc. well ahead of the pack, Clure’s firm has always had to deal with fiercer competition from without the acronym format than from within.
“Smooth initials” are an acronymer’s worst enemy. These short, easy-to-say strings of letters are often developed at low-cost, without the help of special creative firms. Today, especially after the introduction of “WMD” into the news media, smooth initials are holding their own as an acronym alternative. Think DNA, ATP, CIA, CPR, THC, PCP, URL, and even Office Space’s TPS reports. The list goes on and on. But Clure remains unphased.
“This just means the concept’s going to have to evolve. It’s done it in the past, it’ll do it tomorrow. The only thing that’ll never change about an acronym, though, never has changed straight back to Hauser, is that an acronym is there to help people.”