Tuesday, 23 February 2021

What's in a Word? Aria Deconstructed

The announcement last week that the government's Arpa-style agency would go ahead was met with what can only be described as bewildered positivity. Yes, it's great that there'll be more funding for research, and we're all pleased with the promised speed and lack of bureaucracy, but what does it actually mean

With no more details available until 'parliamentary time allows', Fundermentals is happy to fill the void with the scant certainties we have. Which turn out to be just its name: Aria.

First, why change the name of the self-professed origin of the concept, the US Advanced Research Projects Agency to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency? 

I've worked in the world of research funding and management for some time now, and I can't remember the last time I heard the word 'invention'. It has connotations of Cractacus Pott and wind-up radios. It smacks of individuals in garden sheds. It doesn't suggest teams of 'the world’s most visionary researchers' working together in cool, collaborative harmony in research centres made entirely of plate glass and stainless steel. 

Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses

But maybe that's the point. All of the people referenced in the government's announcement are mostly the gifted amateurs and artistocrats of recent history, with a smattering of frustrated academics hamstrung by the systems in which they work. Like the poem 'Colossus' carved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the government is saying: 

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Aria promises to set them free from their hamstringing systems, the oppressive regimes of red tape and, y'know, accountability and show them the way to 'the golden door'. Aria is like the ultimate garden shed.


The use of the word 'invention' also allows for the loaded acronym: Aria. In opera, an aria is a ‘self-contained piece for one voice.’ It's often sung by a prima donna, a role which itself has difficult connotations when it comes to teamwork and considering the role of others in the overall production. It's closely related to a diva, a celebrated female singer. As Wikipedia wryly puts it, it can also refer to 'a woman, especially one in show business, with a reputation for being temperamental or demanding.' I'm not saying anything.

Close relations

Ultimately, there are very few acronyms that haven't already been taken. Aria is no exception, and there are at least 24 other organisations, systems or other entities that are using the acronym. They include Allergic Rhinitis and its Impact on Asthma, the Australian Record Industry Association, the American Riding Instructors Association and, rather fabulously, Ambiguous Restraints for Iterative Assignment. 

Aria, I think we have your strapline.

Photo: "Italian Opera Buffet at the Pan Pacific Vancouver" by ppacificvancouver is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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