Trivia 071: Alphabet Soup Part 1

Earlier this week, while I was eating at Buffalo Wild Wings, I caught a soccer (football to non-Americans) match on TV. The match was between SKN and GUF. As the sound for this particular TV was not on, I had a hard time identifying just which countries those were (try to guess – I’ll give the answer at the end of the post). The problem is, of course, that there are many circumstances where writing out the full name of a country is not ideal. For example, if the scoreboard had to fit The Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe on the screen, it would take up a lot of room. Especially if they happened to be playing the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Therefore, broadcasters and other organizations use a standardized set of abbreviations for country names. But whose standard should they use? Well, therein lies the problem.

This problem reaches far beyond just sports broadcasting. Radio and telecommunications, license plates, meteorology, aviation, and many other fields need abbreviated country codes. Therefore there are quite a few different standards. To start out with, we should consult the most authoritative source, the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO helps set standards for pretty much all aspects of technology and manufacturing. They have published over 24,500 different standards. These standards are not rules, but they are recommendations. By using these standards, people around the world can communicate with no ambiguity. My favorite ISO standard is ISO 8601, which specifies how to write the date. Their official recommendation is that it should be written YYYY-MM-DD, such as 2023-06-22. If everybody writes the date this way, there will be no confusion as to whether or not 10/5/20 is October 5th, 2020, May 10th, 2020, or something else altogether. Two more examples of ISO standards are ISO 3103, which is a procedure for making tea, and ISO 12312-2, which defines a safe solar viewer.

The ISO has, of course, published a standard for codes for country names, territories, and states – ISO 3166. Specifically, ISO 3166-1, which provides three different formats for writing country codes – two- or three-letter codes, and a numeric code. For example, the United States of America is US, USA, or 840. Sao Tome and Principe (mentioned earlier) is ST, STP, or 678. And Macedonia would be MK, MKD, or 807.

Now, of course, these are just recommendations. While they do carry the weight of the ISO behind them, organizations are free to use them or disregard them completely. Many sports organizations follow the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) three-letter codes. While the majority of their codes are consistent with the ISO’s, some are not. For example, the ISO’s code for Sudan is SDN, while the IOC uses SUD. But just like how organizations can choose to go their own way, not all sports organizations follow the IOC. In particular, the soccer match I was watching was following FIFA’s country codes. Many of these are the same as the IOC and ISO, but when the IOC and ISO differ, sometimes FIFA follows the IOC, and sometimes they choose the ISO. In the case of Sudan, FIFA uses SDN, just like the IOC. But in the case of Saudia Arabia, the IOC and FIFA both use KSA, while the ISO uses SAU. And sometimes the IOC and ISO are in agreement, but FIFA is different, like in the case of Trinidad and Tobego (TTO to the IOC and ISO, but TRI to FIFA). But there seems to be only one case where all three differ – Equatorial Guinea. The ISO recommends GNQ, the IOC uses GEQ, and FIFA goes with EQG. (By the way, huge thanks to whoever spent the time to make this table on Wikipedia comparing the three systems).

So there you have it – a bunch of different ways of abbreviating countries. Choose whichever one suits your needs the best. Or make up your own! To answer the question posed earlier, SKN is Saint Kitts and Nevis, and GUF is French Guiana. Boy, there were a lot of abbreviations in this post. I’ve actually got another in the works with yet more geographic abbreviations. Keep an eye on your inbox for that one.

As a bit of related bonus trivia, the Olympics opening parade is done in mostly alphabetical order. However, Greece always goes first, symbolizing its history with the Olympics. The host nation always goes last, and the nation which will host next goes second-to-last. Sometimes it does not seem like they are in alphabetical order, but that is because they do it based off the host country’s language, not English.

If you know anyone who would like to receive these, please have them send an email to [email protected]. And if you don’t think all these abbreviations were a bunch of alphabet soup, let me know and I can take you off the list.

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